'Saving graze' for North East pasture conservation
PUBLISHED: 13:43 17 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:09 20 February 2013
They are hairy, hungry, and helping restore our precious wildlife habitats. Meet the latest recruits to conservation in the North East Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon
Prestwick Carr is an unlikely spot for a nature reserve. Its a good spot to watch the jets taking off from Newcastle International Airport, just to the south. Or to listen to the sound of machine gun fire on the military range next door.
The potholed road that skirts the reserves northern boundary is ominously signposted Not suitable for motors. And the reserve itself looks, to the untutored eye, like an unpromising patch of neglected, overgrown bog.
Yet its here that a team of dedicated conservationists are working tirelessly to reclaim the land for wildlife, creating a diverse habitat, rich in birdlife, bugs and botany. They are a motley collection, these conservationists, long-haired, muddy and unwashed, but singleminded in their dedication to the task at hand. And if their personal grooming leaves a little to be desired, then thats only to be expected, for these are conservationists of the four legged variety.
Traditional breeds of pony, cattle and sheep are being used at a growing number of reserves throughout the region to help restore and maintain habitats through what is known as conservation grazing. At Prestwick Carr thats meant a combination of rare Exmoor ponies, shaggy Highland cattle, and traditional breeds of sheep, including the bizarrely-horned Manx loaghton.
Kevin OHara, conservation officer at Northumberland Wildlife Trust, which manages the reserve on behalf of owners Newcastle City Council, explains that the animals break up the sward, control nuisance plants, and diversify the habitat for invertebrates, flora and ground nesting birds.
Different species eat different things and at differing heights, so using combinations at different times and seasons can have diverse effects, he says.
When we visited Prestwick Carr it was the Exmoor ponies that were in evidence, munching their way through the reeds, and wading confidently through the extensive flooded areas of grassland.
The Carr is important as an example of a rare lowland raised mire, but over the years nearby housing development, road construction and land drainage have affected water levels, degrading the natural habitat and increasing problems of flooding in the surrounding areas. Now the Wildlife Trust is working to restore the Carr to its former glory, and conservation grazing is a key part of the project.
Juliet Rogers, of the Moorland Mousie Trust, which provides the Exmoor ponies, says the breed is ideally suited for conservation grazing, as the ponies are tough, low maintenance, and cope well with harsh weather:
Exmoors need very little veterinary care, other than worming. Theyve got very good dentition, can eat rough stuff like purple moor grass, and they dont need supplementary feeding. We often use them as pioneers to open a site up, before sending in cattle or sheep.
She points to the example of Northumberland National Park, where 30 Exmoors have been grazing remote moorland around Padon Hill to help bring back heather and bilberry, which in turn could allow threatened black grouse to recover. Theyve handled the severe winters very well, she says.
Exmoor ponies nearly went extinct after the Second World War, but numbers are now recovering, and finding a niche in conservation grazing has been a key part of this recovery.
In the past many male foals born on Exmoor were destined for the meat trade, for export or pet food.
Now the Moorland Mousie Trust takes unwanted male foals from farmers, and either domesticates them for riding, or sends them around the country for use in schemes like the one at Prestwick Carr.
Weve currently got 97 in the north east and Cumbria, at more than a dozen sites - thats five per cent of the world population, says Juliet.
Many of the conservation grazing projects in the north east, including those using the Exmoors, are administered by Flexigraze, a non-profit co-operative of land managers which includes wildlife trusts, local councils, Northumbrian Water and Natural England. Juliet manages the Exmoor ponies involved, while cattle and sheep are looked after by Stephen Comber.
We tend to use traditional breeds because they tend to thrive better on a grazing-only diet. The quality of grazing is usually quite poor, and supplementary feeding is often not allowed under the management plan, he explains.
The choice of breed depends partly on the conservation aims, and also on whats available - we may use Highland or Galloway cattle, and sheep such as Swaledales, Hebridean, Soay or Manx loaghton. At Pow Hill Country Park, next to Derwent reservoir, for example, were using Soay sheep, because Northumbrian Water wont allow cattle within 50 metres of the reservoir. Theyre being used to encourage heather and bilberry, and were seeing if they will push bracken back.
Holy Island is a good example of how conservation grazing can be targeted at dealing with specific problems. Andrew Craggs, Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve senior manager, explains that two distinct grazing projects are underway: We graze thirty head of cattle on the island in the autumn, to open up the sward, keep back the rough grass, and avoid a succession to scrubland and woodland. Lindisfarne used to have lots of rabbits, but they died out about 15 years ago, so the cattle replace them.
They help counter pirri pirri burr, which is a New Zealand plant believed to have arrived as seeds washed down from wool cleaned in the Tweed.
Northumberland Wildlife Trusts Kevin OHara believes traditional breeds of livestock are now essential conservation tools. They are a viable commodity in todays monoculture farming landscape, he says.
So much of our wildlife and habitats have disappeared under modern farming, and while there is still a need for high production in places there is also a bigger need to rehabilitate those areas of least production to accommodate different economic and climatic futures. Conservation grazing practices will be key to these restorations.
Those shaggy ponies splashing around at Prestwick Carr dont realise just how important they are.