Each Spring we hire some very fluffy-eared cattle to help us with our conservation grazing. Surrey Wildlife Trust rear Belted Galloway cattle which we lease for about 8 weeks each year to graze our largest site, Prince’s Lakes Biodiversity Site in Bedfont, Hounslow.
What is conservation grazing? It’s a traditional method of land management using livestock that is more selective and sympathetic to the needs of the land you are grazing. As a rule, sheep, cattle, goats, and ponies are used for conservation grazing and each has a very different effect on the landscape. We use cattle on Princes Lakes as the site contains long grass and scrubbed up areas of bramble which they both push through and graze on.
Cattle graze by wrapping their tongues around clumps of grass and ripping it out of the ground. They aren’t very selective about what they eat and create diverse heights of sward across the grassland. This is great for establishing a variety of habitats within a site. In addition to their dung adding another new habitat for invertebrates, there can be a diverse number of species happy to make the most of these new areas.
As cattle are sizeable, they are good at churning up ground and creating open areas which can help wildflower seeds establish in new environments. As mentioned, their dung is a great micro-habitat created whilst they are here and beyond.
One of the first species to arrive on a fresh cowpat is the male Yellow Dung Fly (Scathophaga stercoraria). They sit in wait for females to breed. Eggs are laid within the dung and the larvae feed on it and other smaller insects before burrowing into the ground or deeper within the dung to pupate. Just over 2 weeks later, the juvenile flies emerge to start the cycle all over again.
As we have beehives on site, we inserted barriers to protect both cattle and bees! The picture below gives a good idea of the level of sward reduction by grazing alone. On a large area such as Princes Lakes this makes a big impact.
There were also large stretches of previously inaccessible land opened up by the cows pushing through dense scrub – areas that we had not in fact accessed for years. This made for interesting and time-consuming daily stock checks as we continually found their new favourite spot, but it’s worth it.
The main meadow is alive with a wide variety of wildflower species including orchids. Its also great habitat for one of the most impressive spider species, the Wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi ).
We’ll aim to continue to graze Prince’s Lakes each year to enhance the flora and fauna diversity.