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How cattle are being brought back to manage Herts’ meadows

PUBLISHED: 10:57 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:16 25 July 2017

Longhorn cattle at Oughtonhead - grazing allows habitats to thrive that would be destroyed by mechanical mowing

Longhorn cattle at Oughtonhead - grazing allows habitats to thrive that would be destroyed by mechanical mowing

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Cattle grazing is literally becoming a common sight, as the traditional use of cows on ancient meadows is reintroduced to maintain rich habitats, Countryside Management Service projects officer Andrew Taylor

Pyramidal orchid - one of four orchid species on Weston Hills, grazed by sheep and cattlePyramidal orchid - one of four orchid species on Weston Hills, grazed by sheep and cattle

Cattle grazing is traditional, sustainable, and crucially, the most effective way to maintain a wildlife rich grassland. Yet many valuable grasslands in Hertfordshire that were once managed in this way no longer benefit from grazing. Over the past 20 years conservation grazing has made something of a comeback in the county however. It has been established by North Hertfordshire District Council on three of its nature sites: Oughtonhead Common and Purwell Meadows both in Hitchin and Weston Hills near Baldock. And this year, grazing will get underway at a fourth site, Ivel Springs in Baldock, thanks to a council partnership with Countryside Management Service to establish a grazing infrastructure.

There are many benefits of grazing, most of which encourage diversity. Animals eat selectively, often choosing the dominant plant species on a site thereby allowing room for less competitive species to thrive. Animal grazing will never be uniform – unlike when grass is mown – and micro-habitats of longer and shorter vegetation develop as the animals choose where to graze. The slow and gradual pace of grazing also gives wildlife living in the grass time to adapt, in contrast to the immediate and dramatic change brought about by a mower. In moderation, trampling by hooves can create small areas of bare ground, another positive part of the mix, as it creates nurseries for seedlings and hunting grounds for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles. Even the animals’ dung supports a wide variety of specialist invertebrates.

Grazing must be managed very carefully. There are lots of decisions to be made: What kind of animals are needed? How many? For how long? And at what time of year? Grazing too little or too much can be a problem - too little will allow large plants to dominate; too much will create too much bare soil. It is also a big commitment for the landowner, as animals need secure fencing, water and regular checks. All this makes it more practical on larger sites, where more can be achieved. The needs of all site users should be accommodated with preparation and discussion with local people crucial. Cattle do quickly become a welcome sight and the highlight of many visits, but they are initially unfamiliar, and new fencing should never effect access.

Cattle case studies

Abundant cowslips at Ivel SpringAbundant cowslips at Ivel Spring

After fencing in the centre of Oughtonhead Common Local Nature Reserve on the edge of Hitchin, longhorn cattle arrived from a local farm in 1996. The cows stay on the site throughout the year and are a fantastic tool in the continuing restoration of the important fen habitat. A variety of rushes and sedges can be found here, as well as water mint, and in wetter areas, reeds and hemp agrimony. Ant hills of the yellow meadow ant are a striking feature and demonstrate the long history of the grassland here. Last year the grazing area was extended to include the majority of the grassland on the site and the number of cattle increased as a result. This should benefit plants like lady’s bedstraw and devil’s-bit scabious in the drier parts of the common.

Weston Hills in Baldock incorporates important areas of chalk grassland. Grazing was restored here in 2012, with sheep on the steep slopes of Gibbet Hill and cattle on the gentler slopes to the north. These animals help prevent scrub encroachment and maintain the diverse grassland which has resulted from centuries of past grazing. Gibbet Hill in particular supports rich flora including eyebright, small scabious, clustered bellflower and four species of orchid.

The newest site in North Herts to see conservation grazing, Ivel Springs, will see cattle arrive this year for the first time. The wildflower meadow here was created from an arable field in 1992 to protect the scheduled ancient monument that lies underneath it. The springs have been a focal point for millenia - a cursus was built here in the Neolithic period and a farm developed here in the Iron Age. The meadow now supports species such as cowslip and bird’s-foot-trefoil, Introducing grazing will help increase the diversity of the grassland while protecting the important archaeology from heavy machinery.

Countryside Management Service is planning a ‘Meet the cows’ event at Ivel Springs on July 20 from 7.30pm to introduce people to the newest feature of the reserve. See the website hertfordshire.gov.uk/walksandmore for details.

View towards Baldock from Weston HillsView towards Baldock from Weston Hills

To keep up to date with news and events relating to walking in Hertfordshire sign up for a monthly bulletin at hertfordshire.gov.uk/updateme

Countryside Management Service works with communities in Herts to help them care for and enjoy the environment. For more information, visit hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms, email northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk or call 01992 588433.

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