CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

Living lawnmowers

PUBLISHED: 10:02 18 October 2015

Konik ponies are used at Amwell and Rye Meads

Konik ponies are used at Amwell and Rye Meads

thinkstock

Using grazing animals has become a key tool in managing rare grassland habitats. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserves manager Paul Thrush explains

If you have been lucky enough to visit a well-managed traditional grassland this spring or summer, perhaps at one of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserves, it’s likely you will have been overwhelmed by the diversity of life there. Rare orchids, vetches, cowslips and sedges are studded throughout the sward. In less well-drained areas you might have found ragged robin, meadow rue, marsh marigold and cuckooflower. The vibrant colours of these flowers attract butterflies as well as our most endangered and important pollinator, the bumblebee. Wildflowers have evolved to take advantage of niches, such as nutrient-poor soils, where other plants struggle. Soils with high levels of nutrients generally favour common plants such as rank grasses, nettles and thistles –aggressive competitors that crowd out rarer species.

Until only a few decades ago, these grassland habitats were so abundant they were overlooked by conservationists. However, species-rich grassland became rare and threatened as farming practices changed and they were ploughed up and nutrients added to the soils to make them more productive. In Hertfordshire, we are lucky to have remnants of grassland which escaped this. From floodplains in river valleys to chalk grasslands in the Chilterns, these contain species-rich habitats. Traditional management such as hay cutting and grazing helps to maintain these grassland areas in a low-nutrient state by removing the build-up of growth which occurs during spring and summer. Where these practices are reintroduced on unimproved land with poor nutrient conditions, the resulting species diversity can be spectacular. An unmanaged grassland will quickly become a dense overgrown sward of common grasses, nettles and thistles, and then impenetrable scrub. Grazing is often the best option to maintenance but it has to be the right kind, at the right levels, at the right time. Different types of animals graze differently, and can have very different effects on vegetation.

Sheep

Sheep tend to be used during autumn and winter at Aldbury Nowers, Amwell, Patmore Heath and Fir and Pond woods reserves. They tend to nibble plants, grazing very close to the ground to create a short sward. They actively seek out the tastiest flower heads and buds and some breeds struggle on tall or rough vegetation. They are very light, so tend not to disturb the ground too much. In addition, they are easy to handle, and to move into specific areas where targeted grazing is needed.

Cattle

Cattle can be found from mid-summer to autumn at Thorley Wash, Blagrove Common and Long Deans reserves. Cattle wrap their tongues around a tuft of vegetation and pull it into their mouths, which creates a very different sward structure to sheep grazing. They don’t seek out tasty morsels, and instead graze a site in fairly uniform way, munching pretty much everything they come across. They are a lot heavier than sheep, and, while too many can erode the ground, some hoof marks are valuable both to create bare soil to allow seed germination and as micro-habitats for invertebrates.

Ponies

Four konik ponies are moved around the trust’s large wetland sites such as Amwell and Rye Meads. As a rule they are at Amwell throughout the winter and at Rye Meads in summer. Koniks are a hardy breed that copes well on rough sites. They are quite selective grazers, which means they can create a diverse sward with lots of variation in structure.

By October, grasslands can look a little dull, but conservation is still at work. The trust’s living lawnmowers will be out there grazing, and the team of reserve officers and volunteers will be cutting and raking. Come next spring it will all be worth it, as once again the meadows burst into life, reminding us why these are habitats to be proud of and why we need to take care of them.

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Don’t miss the November issue of Hertfordshire Life - out now!

Read more
Monday, October 29, 2018

Hertfordshire is a county with a vast, fascinating and sometimes dark and bloody history that has reportedly lead to more than a few angry ghosts sticking around to wreak havoc and take revenge on the living. We have gathered 10 of the most haunted places in the county

Read more
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Make the most out of autumn with these eight walking routes that take in a variety of Hertfordshire’s terrains and - most importantly – have a cosy pub along the way

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We've selected a variety of spooky activities in the county that are sure to delight the kids

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Christmas isn’t complete without a trip to a festive fair. From German-style food stalls to vintage fetes, Hertfordshire’s Christmas markets have it all

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Charlotte Hussey explores the fascinating world of bats and new projects in the county to help conserve these remarkable creatures

Read more
October 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species is asking the public to look out for mammals on Hertfordshire’s roads as part of a citizen science project

Read more
September 2018
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

From stately homes to skateparks, we have selected some of the best ideas for things to do in Hertfordshire

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The diverse parkland of Pishiobury Park in Sawbridgeworth is undergoing a five-year plan to promote its heritage and enhance its habitats. It makes for a royal day out

Read more
September 2018

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy



Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search