Conservation grazing

Beautiful Belted Galloway cows

Grazing is often the most effective and natural way to maintain certain habitats such as grassland and heathland. It helps to keep areas open and ensuring a wider variety of plants and animals. We use grazing animals such as sheep and cattle on some of our nature reserves to continue a more traditional system carried out by rural people grazing their animals and living off the land. In the past, where people cleared land for cultivation and pasture their grazing animals helped replicate the effect of large herbivores which roamed the land in earlier times. Conservation grazing aims to continue this traditional system to help maintain habitats which have evolved over many centuries.

Why is grazing important?

Belted Galloway cattle grazing in a field
Belted Galloway cattle grazing in a field at Swan Barn Farm, Surrey
Belted Galloway cattle grazing in a field

Light grazing on open, often scrubby landscapes is essential to ensure the survival of our rare and often threatened wildlife.  There are no artificial inputs such as fertilisers and we use low numbers of animals with the timing and length of grazing being carefully managed.  Many of our nature reserves have never been ploughed or fertilised and so still support a rich amount of undisturbed native wildlife. Both over grazing and under grazing can be damaging to habitats, so it’s quite a skill to ensure effective and beneficial grazing regimes.  We use native breeds such as Belted Galloways, Sussex cows and Herdwick sheep.  You will see where grazing is working well as there will be a much greater number of flowering plants and the constant buzz of insects and birdsong in summer. 

How do we graze?

Conservation grazing encourages wildflowers
Conservation grazing encourages wildflowers
Conservation grazing encourages wildflowers

We use a system of target grazing where the cows graze a particular area or compartment for a short period and then are moved on to another area on a rotation.  This cycle of grazing allows disturbed areas to be alongside areas that are rested and ungrazed which gives a greater diversity of habitats.  The area and timing of grazing is not fixed so will be different each year.  

Sheep and cattle?

A flock of herdwick sheep grazing
A flock of herdwick sheep grazing
A flock of herdwick sheep grazing

Grazing animals can be quite selective in what they eat.  Sheep are more selective and fussy than cows on their choice of food.  Cows will eat more common and vigorous plant species, which allows more delicate or less competitive plants to grow, so increasing diversity.  We use a mixture of sheep and cattle because of the different ways they actually remove and eat the vegetation.  Cows use their tongues to graze, wrapping it around plants and grasses and pulling it up.  Together with trampling the ground, this helps create a mosaic of different plant heights and micro habitats.  Sheep graze using their front teeth to ‘cut’ the plants which creates a uniform height often just above ground level. Herdwick sheep also happily graze bramble and scrub making them ideal for overgrown sites. This means that using both sheep and cattle toether will give us the greatest diversity of plant heights and structure which creates an ideal habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

Grazing animals and the web of life

Belted Galloway cattle grazing in long grass
Belted Galloway cattle grazing in long grass
Belted Galloway cattle grazing in long grass
Having mixed grazing reflects the variety of grazing animals which would have roamed across Europe thousands of years ago.  This includes European bison, red and roe deer, the tarpan (wild horse), aurochs (wild ox) together with beavers and wild boar.  Their different methods of grazing and disturbance would have created a complex mosaic of habitats, not necessarily just the closed canopy forest that is often considered to be the standard prehistoric landscape.  There would have been a more open form of woods and pasture driven by grazing animals creating a dynamic landscape of open grown trees, scrub, grazed areas, groves and thickets.  This is turn would have helped to develop rich and diverse wildlife communities.

Animal welfare

A Sussex Cow and her calf grazing in parkland
A Sussex Cow and her calf grazing in parkland
A Sussex Cow and her calf grazing in parkland

Our cattle and sheep live entirely off the grass or heathland vegetation and are given little artificial feed and just some additional minerals. They graze grass and scrub in the summer and are given hay made on site in the winter. We only use chemical worm control if we have identified an issue in the herd by regularly screening the dung for worm eggs.  We also use a closed herd system whereby no new stock is brought into the herd without being fully health screened beforehand. This is to minimise any disease risk to the stock. This low input system has very little nutrient or chemical impact on the land.   It results in a healthier environment starting from the insects that live off their dung, to a diverse mix of plants, to birds such as skylarks that live in the grass. Our livestock are reared to highest animal welfare standards and we are a full member of the Freedom Foods mark.  Although the livestock is used primarily for conservation work we often have small amounts of our surplus beef and lamb available to purchase through the butcher in Midhurst.  This quality meat is full of natural goodness from their diet of a whole mixture of our native wild plants.  Any funds raised through the sale of meat go directly back to the conservation and management of our countryside sites.  Our cows and sheep are checked every day throughout the year.

Our choice of cows and sheep

Belted Galloway cows

Two belted galloway cattle stood in long grass
Two belted galloway cattle stood in long grass
Two belted galloway cattle stood in long grass

This is a very adaptable breed, originally from Galloway in Scotland and so very suited to being outdoors all year round.  It has a thick undercoat and long wavy overcoat that sheds rain well, helping it survive in the wettest conditions.  It does well on coarse grasses and eats a wide range of plants.  It’s a very attractive cow with its striking white belt.  The original Galloway cow is all black and no-one is completely certain how the white belt came about.  It’s believed it resulted from crossing the ancient Galloway cow with the Dutch belted cow, the Lakenvelder. 

Sussex cows

A Sussex Cow amongst long grass with trees in the background
A Sussex Cow amongst long grass with trees in the background
A Sussex Cow amongst long grass with trees in the background

It’s believed that today’s breed of Sussex cow is descended directly from the red cattle that inhabited the Weald at the time of the Norman Conquest.  These former draught animals were selectively bred to form today’s modern beef breed.  The Sussex does well on low quality vegetation and is happy being kept out all year as it grows a dense, wavy winter coat in contrast to its fine and sleek summer coat.  It has a beautiful deep red chestnut colour very similar to the Devon red.  The Sussex prefer to eat less rough vegetation than Belted Galloways but eat a greater quantity. 

Herdwick sheep

Close up picture of two Herdwick sheep's faces amonst the flock
Close up picture of two Herdwick sheep's faces amonst the flock
Close up picture of two Herdwick sheep's faces amonst the flock

This hardy breed from the Lake District has a dense, grey fleece and distinctive chunky legs.  Their fleece is very oily with high kemp and lanolin content making it extra waterproof and warm.  They are well suited to low quality forage, can cope in extreme weather and have a strong ‘hefting’ instinct.  ‘Hefting’ is the term given to small flocks of sheep that, through mother-lamb generations, learn which section of unfenced grazing to stay within.  They are good browsers and are happy eating brambles and more scrubby vegetation. 

Grazing alone is often only part of management needed to prevent scrub taking over.  We also rely on volunteers to clear gorse, thorn and birch scrub that can quickly take over large areas.

  • Please keep dogs on leads in fields with cows and sheep.
  • Never walk between a cow and her calf. If you feel threatened let your dog off the lead
  • Please keep your dog away from electric fencing
  • Always bag and bin dog poo.
  • Dog poo contains worms and diseases which can be passed onto humans or livestock or contaminate the soil and water table.
  • Hundreds of people walk their dogs here regularly.  That generates a large amount of poo!