The Importance of Grazing Management for Biodiversity

Grazing Sheep on banks of Cheddar Reservoir, Somerset. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

A botanist’s behaviour can look strange in the eyes of passers-by. Watching, as opposed to counting sheep, seems odd even to my own eyes. A walk around Cheddar Reservoir provided me with a chance to observe how sheep eat grass.

Local sheep are accustomed people passing on the path as they graze on the banks. They barely ceased chomping as I stopped to observe. They steered a wider berth of local dog-walkers. All owners respectfully kept well-behaved dogs on leads. My curious presence was tolerated.

Sheep grazing on the banked sides of Cheddar Reservoir with Cheddar Gorge in the distance
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

Changes in grazing management have had a detrimental effect on wild flower abundance. Curiosity made me stop and watch. A sheep’s bite wrenches noisily at vegetation. I read recently that sheep graze differently to other farm animals:

Sheep have thin mobile lips and move slowly over the sward nibbling the grass. They can graze very close to the ground which can result in tight ‘lawn-like’ vegetation. Sheep are very selective grazers and will target flowering plants which can have a negative impact on species diversity. Sheep can push their way through scrub and can browse saplings preventing new growth. However, they find it harder to graze longer vegetation which is often trampled instead.

Natural England

A previous blog Rewilding by the River Parrett considered the conservation benefits of cattle grazing. Cattle are getting bad press for their methane emissions at a time of climate emergency. Their grazing habits stand in marked contrast to those of sheep. Natural England observe that:

Cattle use their tongues to pull tufts of vegetation into the mouth. This means that they do not graze vegetation too close to the ground and often leave tussocks of grass which are used by insects and small mammals. Because of their wide mouths cattle do not graze selectively and as a result do not target flower heads and herbage which is important for botanically-diverse habitats. Cattle are able to create their own access into rough areas and the trampling of these areas can be an important way of controlling scrub.

Natural England

Mixed livestock grazing is recommended for wildlife conservation. The polarisation of farming around the country has had a detrimental effect on biodiversity. Traditional mixed farming achieved a better balance. The old Natural England publications below provide fascinating reading to non-farmers. Getting the balance right is not easy. While cattle may be considered unfriendly under climate change, they seem more friendly than sheep for biodiversity. Researchers hope to change cattle diets to provide a long-term solution to the methane issue.

I also returned this week to one of my favourite Primrose patches of childhood. There were not as many Primroses as I remembered (as discussed in the previous blog). There were many more plants on its sloping banks this year. Pregnant ewes were in that field last year. It only goes to show that you shouldn’t jump to a single conclusion about vegetation changes. This botanist will now be scowling at Primrose-scoffing sheep and smiling at cows for the rest of the spring.

Woodland edge Primroses, Primula vulgaris, in Somerset. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

That said, many old wildlife sites are covered in scrub as grazing practices and land management have deteriorated. It’s not all bad news. I noticed on a recent clifftop walk that scrub clearance had uncovered lots of Primroses and Orchid rosettes. I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge hungry sheep the occasional Primrose?

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Kent Wildlife Trust (?): A brief guide to choosing livestock for conservation grazing. 05 Kent Wildlife Trust Land Management Advice Series Last accessed 20 March 2020.

Natural England (2012): The importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation. English Nature. Published 2006. Uploaded 2012. Last accessed 20 March 2020.

Natural England (2008?): Chapter 7 – Grazing of livestock in the lowlands. NERR030 edition 1. Last accessed 20 March 2020.

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