Extensive grazing at Wicken Fen

Herds of free roaming konik ponies and highland cattle are helping to engineer new habitats for wildlife at Wicken Fen.

As the nature reserve expands under the Wicken Fen Vision, it would not be possible to manage the enlarged reserve using traditional methods of man and machinery, instead a more sustainable approach is needed.

A new approach

Our restoration approach is based on three key elements; the natural regeneration of plants, reducing the loss of water through field drains and ditches, and thirdly, the use of grazing animals.

Grazing animals are essential to the development of vegetation in new areas of the nature reserve. The animals help keep the landscape open and help wetland and grassland plants to become established.

Why Konik ponies and Highland cattle

The hardiness of the breeds means they are more than capable of withstanding the rigours of life on the fen throughout the year and thrive on the available forage.

The Konik pony is a very hardy breed originating from Eastern Europe ideally suited to our type of lowland landscape. The Highland cattle originate from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland,they are tough and robust with a placid nature. 

How the animals influence their environment

The effects the animals have on developing vegetation will vary according to their density and feeding behaviour. Some areas will be grazed more heavily, whilst other areas may escape allowing the vegetation to grow taller. 

The animals also create other habitats such as well trodden paths through areas of long grass, dusty hollows where they roll, water-filled hoof prints and piles of dung. The animals act as catalysts to help attract new species of flora and fauna to the fen.

Horses tend to snip off selected plants with their incisors, creating a mosaic of short cropped 'lawns'. Cattle largely graze by pulling or tearing at vegetation, leaving a landscape with a more 'tussocky' appearance. 

With these different grazing characteristics, the breeds are the perfect engineers for the long term management of vegetation across new areas of the nature reserve.

Top tips on how to see the animals

The main grazing groups can be seen on Baker's and Burwell Fens.  It's important to keep to the footpaths that go round the edge of these areas, and not to approach the animals.  Although the ponies and cattle may look adorable, they can bite and kick, particularly if you get too close to their family group.  We also ask that you do not feed the animals as they are used to grazing on the plants that grow naturally on the fen, and eating other things can make them ill.  

When the Visitor Centre is open, our friendly team will be happy to find out from the rangers where the ponies and cattle were last seen grazing, so you can make your way to these areas first.  The animals are free roaming across wide areas of the reserve, so they are not always easy to find.

If you are walking on the reserve with your four-legged friend, please keep him or her on a short lead.  It's safer for your furry companion to keep a distance from the ponies and cattle.