Conservation Grazing – the right animal in the right place at the right density

Logo: Rare Breeds Survival Trust
Exmoor pony at North Berwick Law feasting on gorse  (Sylvia Beaumont
Exmoor pony at North Berwick Law feasting on gorse (Sylvia Beaumont

“Conservation grazing” is the term given to the use of livestock to restore or maintain rare habitats, and was for many years seen by some as “not quite farming”.  The emphasis is indeed very much on the land management side, with sustainable food production and the benefits to human health and the wider environment only now gaining the recognition they deserve. In recent years, we have seen growing uptake of grazing options in agri-environment schemes and a recognition of the importance of soil and pasture management.   This has resulted in an increase in pasture-based and low-input farming methods which has blurred the lines between farming and conservation grazing, with an encouraging number of people seeing that the two are complementary and overlapping practices.

Some conservation organisations own and manage their own flocks and herds for the sole purpose of grazing, some work in partnership with graziers who provide livestock.   “Conventional” farmers may include conservation grazing animals as part of their farm enterprise under government agri-environment schemes which encourage good stewardship of the land.

Conservation habitat management broadly aims to maintain or increase biodiversity on a given site, using soil type, altitude, geology, climate and historical factors to guide the site objectives.   The equipment available to today’s conservation land manager includes a range of fast, effective machines, driven by fossil-fuels.   Although there is undoubtedly a place for these, the benefits of domestic livestock as a more sustainable alternative are increasingly being realised.

Boreray sheep conservation grazing on Orkney (Ruth Dalton)
Boreray sheep conservation grazing on Orkney (Ruth Dalton)

Impact of grazing animals

The main impacts of grazing animals are threefold: the removal of plant material through the actual grazing or browsing process; the nutrient enrichment of the soil through dunging and urination; and disturbance of the ground by trampling hooves.   Finding the right level of grazing is dependent on a host of variables, from numbers and types of animals used to weather conditions, ground conditions and historical land use.   Undergrazing can result in the dominance of a few coarse species that are usually kept in check by grazing and the growth of unwanted scrub. Overgrazing can lead to desirable plant species being eliminated and so-called weed species increasing, often through the introduction of too many animals or the use of the wrong type of livestock.  

The different species used / sheep, cattle or ponies?

Sheep are smaller, cheaper and are generally considered easier to manage in a conservation grazing context, but they have limited habitat benefits. Sheep are not native to Britain, having been introduced by man around 5,000 years ago.   They are highly selective grazers, with small mouths able to pick the sweetest and most nutritious plant species from a sward.   Their hooves are small and relatively light, compacting the ground. Evolved for a mountainous environment, they can suffer from foot problems and from the effects of flies in a lowland setting.   However, appropriately managed, sheep can be useful animals, for example in heathland restoration where they can be summer grazed to reduce the expansion of scrub and promote heather growth, which they tend to eat only in winter.

Native to Britain, the ancestor of today’s domestic cattle was the aurochs, a wild horned ox that stood 2m at the shoulder and roamed a largely forested landscape. Cattle are perhaps more useful animals than   sheep in terms of their impacts on vegetation - although they will avoid certain species, their large mouths make it harder for them to discriminate between preferred plants and less palatable ones.   Well equipped to graze longer grasses and herbs, they create a variable sward structure benefiting a host of species.   Their dung is also valuable for invertebrates and their heavy feet can break up compacted ground to provide seeding opportunities for plants. However, if grazed on wet ground or at high densities, cattle will poach the land and create bare patches that encourage weed growth.  

Shetland cattle strip-grazing a species rich hay  meadow (Ruth Dalton)
Shetland cattle strip-grazing a species rich hay meadow (Ruth Dalton)

Native ponies are hardy and exempt from much of the regulation that accompanies the keeping of farmed livestock.   They have many of the benefits of cattle grazing when used at a similarly low stocking density and are naturally resistant to parasites and disease. They tend to create “latrine” areas which may cause localised enrichment of the soil so they are best used on large sites or for shorter periods of time.   Like cattle, they will browse as well as graze and will not preferentially eat flowering heads of plants as sheep do.  

There is a tendency to use native breeds in conservation grazing

Before the 1950s, and the onset of the Common Agricultural Policy pushing farmers to produce maximum yields, livestock had been bred to grow and reproduce on relatively low inputs.   A lack of affordable “concentrate” feed or artificial fertilizers meant that animals had to be thrifty and hardy and these attributes work in favour of the conservation land manager.   Many of these traditional breeds are now classified as rare, so the opportunity to prove their usefulness as conservation grazers also secures their valuable genetics for future need.  

There is also increasing interest in returning land to a more natural state, encouraging the growth of scrub and a mosaic of more diverse habitats. Large herbivores are an important part of these projects, especially cattle, ponies and pigs, which can encourage a varied sward and the seeding of previously outcompeted plants and their associated fauna.   This chimes well with a growing interest in quality food, produced in a sustainable way, for the benefit of wildlife and the environment - an exciting new chapter for conservation grazing.

For more info take a look at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust new Grazing Animals Project resources, including detailed guidance on handling systems and starting a grazing scheme There is also an excellent on-line conservation grazing forum – “Nibblers” – run as a GoogleGroup, if you would like to join, please email me –

First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Management in association with the Countryside Management Association on 23 September 2019

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