British White and Shetland cattle graze all year on most of Canford Heath. While in the summer months Shetland cattle graze Dunyeats Hill (managed by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust) and parts of Corfe Hills and part of Bourne Valley. Additionally on another part of Bourne Valley New Forest ponies graze all year.
Some of our most valuable wildlife habitats, such as heathland and grasslands, are not truly natural but rather have been created as a result of the activities of humans and their livestock over the centuries.
For example, most heathland in Dorset has been grazed until recently ever since the trees were first cleared by early farmers several thousand years ago. The resulting sunny open conditions, with patchy low-growing plants such as heather and gorse, provided ideal habitat for our rarest reptiles such as the sand lizard and smooth snake (Poole's heaths support all six British reptiles), as well as other specialised wildlife such as the nightjar, Dartford warbler and the Purbeck mason wasp.
Regular cropping of the vegetation by livestock brings several benefits:
- It helps prevent scrub and trees from taking over.
- It creates a patchwork of different vegetation heights and bare ground that suits the widest range of wildlife species.
- Dominant grasses are reduced, so giving rare plants a chance to grow.
- Dung is required in the life cycle of certain invertebrates, including the nationally rare Hornet Robber Fly
Without such management, heathland would quickly revert to continuous birch and pine woodland, with a thick understorey of bramble and rhododendron. The open conditions needed by heathland wildlife (and the landscape enjoyed by walkers and riders) would be lost.
Grazing is therefore recognized by Natural England (the Government body responsible for nature conservation) as an important heathland management technique. Our local heathlands are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest; this Government designation gives a high degree of protection from development, but also brings a legal obligation for site managers to properly manage these habitats. Natural England are funding the reintroduction of grazing to SSSI heathlands throughout the Bournemouth-Poole conurbation, via the Dorset Urban Heaths Grazing Partnership, in order to improve habitat condition.
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The Grazing Partnership generally favours Shetland cattle for heathland grazing, though other native cattle breeds as well as hardy ponies are also used on some sites.
Shetland cattle have been chosen because they are:
- Very hardy. They thrive outside all year round with only natural shelter, and can maintain condition on low-quality grazing.
- Placid by nature, and easily managed.
- Good browsers. They readily take willow, birch, bramble and gorse, and so are ideal for heathland scrub control.
- A rare breed. In the 1950s, fewer than 40 pure-bred Shetlands remained, and today it is still listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as being "At risk". The Dorset Urban Heaths Grazing Partnership has recently built up a breeding herd of over 30 Shetlands, representing one of the largest on mainland Britain.
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Experience has shown that when cattle are first introduced, heathland users often have some initial trepidation but that they soon grow to appreciate the livestock as interesting additions to the scene. Cattle have grazed Bournemouth's nature reserves (such as Hengistbury Head, Turbary and Kinson Commons) for many years with great success.
Visitors to grazed reserves are requested to observe the following:
- Please close gates behind you (gates that should be open will always be locked into position)
- Please prevent your dog running right up to the cattle. Though docile by nature, they can defend themselves if "attacked", even if in play.
(There are well-publicised incidents of dog-walkers being injured when cows attack their dogs in the UK each year, but these are invariably cases where cows with strong maternal instincts are defending their young calves. For this reason, the Grazing Partnership avoids having cows with young calves on sites with public access).
Please don't feed or try to touch the livestock. Uncontrolled feeding will do them harm, and could also teach them to harass other visitors for food.
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To contact the Dorset Urban Heathlands Grazing Partnership:
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