When thinking of conservation grazing, the first species that comes to mind is generally cattle. Cattle have been used successfully in conservation and management projects across a diversity of habitats including heath, fen, meadow, wetland and woodland across the UK and further afield. 

Cattle are often seen to be more useful animals than sheep in terms of their impacts on vegetation. They are less selective grazers than either equines or sheep and their grazing is likely to produce a less homogeneous sward, with some tussocks. They are well suited to graze longer grasses and herbs and they create a variable sward structure benefitting a host of species. They do not selectively eat flower heads of herbs, which can be beneficial in a botanically diverse meadow. Although they will avoid certain species, their large mouths make it harder for cattle to discriminate between preferred plants and less palatable ones. Thus grazing with cattle tends to increase plant and invertebrate numbers and diversity because of the uneven sward, the greater number of flowers and because cattle dung supports more invertebrates.

Significant impact

One downside is that cattle can have quite a significant impact on shrubs and small trees, as they tend to remove leaves and twigs using a tearing action rather than a nipping with their teeth; this can be highly damaging and cause the affected tree/shrub to die if over browsed. A broad range of woody species is readily consumed by native cattle including ash, sycamore, oak, birch, hazel and hawthorn. Horned cattle may cause significant physical damage to scrub, by rubbing against trees and bushes and pushing through them, although this behaviour can bring positive impacts such as the creation of wildlife corridors. Their dung also provides valuable habitat for invertebrates with up to 250 species found on a fresh cow pat. Poaching or soil compaction arising from congregation or movement can provide seeding opportunities for plants and corridors to enable wildlife to move freely.

As ruminants, cattle can spend as much as 16 hours a day resting to allow ingested food to be fully digested by their rumen micro fauna. They can be fairly selective about their resting places and favoured spots can soon show signs of dung accumulation or damage, but this is generally less significant than with other species and on extensive grazing sites this impact is likely to be less noticeable than in confined areas.

Creating pathways

Native traditional cattle have been used successfully for conservation grazing/management in a variety of locations. On Purbeck Heath, for example, cattle are being used as part of a mixed grazing system to create pathways allowing rare species to survive and thrive. The tussocky vegetation left by the cattle is ideal for the Silver-studded Blue butterfly which needs very short, grazed heather in the caterpillar stage and taller tussocks for roosting habitat as adults. Several species of plants have colonised the pathways made by the cattle including Bog Asphodel and carnivorous Sundews. Plants such as these are bare ground specialists and therefore thrive in pathways and low grazed areas.

Over 105 woodland sites across England, Scotland and Wales are currently grazed by cattle for conservation, both for species specific and habitat specific reasons. Cattle are used to maintain open habitats, manage tree and shrub regeneration, and for reducing dominant species such as bracken or Molinia. They have also been used successfully in tree regeneration projects for various species - oak in England and birch, aspen and Scots pine in Scotland. A recently implemented woodland restoration scheme in the New Forest looks to use the presence of cattle to help maintain a healthy woodland, keeping invasive species at bay, eliminating competition for growth on the forest floor and allowing some of the Forest’s rarest and most valuable flora to flourish. The cattle will play a vital role in restoring the woodland to predominantly broadleaf trees by dispersing seeds and reducing undesirable growth.

Any environment

Longhorns have been an instrumental part of restoration in the Neroche Forest and have grazed there for over a decade helping to maintain a healthy woodland ecosystem, whilst in Coed Cymerau in Snowdonia cattle have been used across a combination of semi-ancient woodland, permanent pasture and bog to maintain woodland health and extend open areas. In the Wye Valley a mosaic of semi-natural woodland and wood pasture is grazed by a herd of Ancient Cattle of Wales in a seasonal pattern. They have a very low stocking density which ensures that delicate habitats and archaeology are conserved. From conifer plantation to ancient woodland and wood pasture, cattle are playing an increasing a role in conservation grazing (and browsing).

Our native cattle thrive in almost any environment which is shown by the diversity of conservation projects which rely on them. Not only do they thrive on heath and in woodland, but they are also proving successful in dune environments. At Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe cattle play a vital role in the dynamic Dunescapes project which has the aim of providing homes for a variety of specialised and rare sand dune wildlife. By grazing, the cattle remove vegetation and reduce overgrowth on over stabilised dune ecosystems. Their movement creates pathways and bare ground allowing wildlife to flourish.

Our traditional cattle breeds are ingenious, intelligent, hardy and adaptable. They thrive in almost any habitat and can offer a myriad of conservation solutions for habitat creation, management, and restoration. Each breed has a unique combination of attributes allowing land managers to tailor their breed selection to the environment and conservation goals of each site. In short, cattle are excellent ecological engineers.

 Author: Andrea Parry-Jones, Conservation Adviser, Winter ARK 2024
Photo: John Briggs (English Longhorns)