Looking after the Forest
At Neroche, a new landscape is taking shape within the Forestry Commission estate. Conifer plantations have given way to a network of 250 hectares of re-establishing marshy grassland, wet heath, scrub and wood pasture, set within a 1000 hectare public forest. A newly established herd of English Longhorn cattle is grazing the forest, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Through this project the Forestry Commission, with Butterfly Conservation and other partners in the Neroche Scheme, are using the opportunity afforded by a large, single-owner landholding to trial an approach to conservation grazing which has scope to become self-supporting, and relevant to other landowners in the future. In the process the project is creating an open forest at a scale and of a richness which can give a range of threatened species the room they need to ebb and flow through the landscape, beginning a new chapter in the long history of the borderlands between Somerset and Devon.
Harvesting of Conifers and Cattle grazing in the forest
Why harvest conifers?
Periodic harvesting of conifers across the Neroche forest is designed to create a network of open space and partially wooded glades. These areas will only pay dividends for wildlife if they are actively managed - without this management they will quickly revert to scrub and secondary woodland. Given the objective of this process is to create a large-scale network of habitats which is as natural as possible in structure and composition, the maintenance of open space by artificial means, such as mowing or strimming, would be inappropriate and would detract from the wild feel of the area. The only truly effective method to create, and then maintain the desired habitats is to introduce grazing. This too, if done at an intensity and scale akin to normal farming practice, would not produce a naturalistic effect. Therefore grazing needs to be at a low intensity, and carried out across large areas which are big enough to allow natural patterns of foraging to be expressed.
Why put cattle in a forest?
English Longhorn cattle have been in residence in the Neroche forest since winter 2007. The cattle have a job to do – to help create the habitats needed by the rare butterflies and other wildlife of the area, which currently only have small grass clearings to live in. The existing small glades in the forest have supported small populations of butterflies like the Duke of Burgundy and brown hairstreak for many years, but these glades were too small to guarantee these species a future. Now, the glades are connected into a whole landscape of open space, scrub and broadleaved woodland which will offer the butterflies the room they need to spread and flourish. The cattle will help that new landscape develop a grassy, heathy character over the coming years: their foraging will encourage grass, rush and sedge to grow, and their browsing will help keep scrub and bramble in check.
Why choose cattle?
Of the livestock options which could be pursued, cattle, ponies and pigs are all capable of surviving in the forest conditions and creating desired effects, provided they are hardy breeds. Pigs have the disadvantage that they are more difficult to contain, and can damage the ground layers in localised areas. Ponies can be very effective, but cattle have the added benefit of producing a potentially valuable product at the end of the process, which can be supplied into the local food chain and can create an added economic benefit from what is primarily a conservation management tool. For these reasons cattle have been chosen for this project. English Longhorns will be used as the main breed, because they are hardy, they thrive in woodland situations where they happily browse as well as graze, and they are docile in the presence of people. The project is not necessarily committed to this breed exclusively however, and market price, local considerations and results on the ground will influence choices as time goes on.
Is this a new idea?
Although the project is a new departure for the Blackdown Hills, there are plenty of precedents for successful forest grazing elsewhere in Britain, such as at Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, and the New Forest in Hampshire. Neroche is taking tips from those involved in other forest grazing projects to help make the Blackdown Hills project a success.
Will the livestock affect public access?
Regular users of the forest may find the idea of cattle amongst the trees a bit strange at first, but the presence of livestock does not change the public accessibility of the forest, or pose a risk to walkers or riders. Longhorn cattle are renowned for being docile creatures, which do not react adversely to the presence of people. They have impressive horns, but they don’t choose to use them! Users of the forest are asked simply to make particularly sure that they keep their dogs under close control – signs on the site indicate clearly which areas the cattle are occupying. In this respect the grazed areas of the forest will be no different from open farmland. However in practice, few people will actually see the cattle – they will be hidden amongst the trees out of sight most of the time.
Will the cattle be alright?
On the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be much for cattle to eat in the newly cleared areas, compared with an average green field. However Longhorns are hardy beasts, well used to poor quality forage and happy to browse as well as graze. Their welfare will be of paramount importance to the project, and they will be checked every day by Chris Salisbury. In addition, the project has arranged for an independent vet to make periodic visits to the area to check the condition of the animals. The cattle will remain in the forest until the end of the summer, when they will be moved to an overwintering coral facility in the forest.
What will happen in the future?
This is an ambitious project, which will test emerging new approaches to large-scale habitat restoration and management. Forest grazing has been shown to succeed in locations such as Sherwood, Savernake and the New Forest, but each location is unique and the consequences of this approach at Neroche cannot be predicted accurately. While diverse grassland vegetation has been shown to establish rapidly in clearings in the forest, it is hard to predict how well this establishment will take place when the denser areas of plantation are opened up. On top of this, the cattle can be expected to establish their own preferred grazing areas and routes, and this freedom to choose will help generate a more naturalistic pattern of vegetation, but equally it means the precise distribution of pasture and heathland types cannot be set in advance. The project is therefore explicitly experimental, both in terms of whether it will create the type and balance of habitat conditions sought, and whether the associated special wildlife, notably butterflies, will respond positively to the expansion of those conditions. Furthermore the effect of free-ranging grazing on recreational use of the forest will need to be monitored equally carefully.
The essential pioneer work will be completed and the foundations of these habitats laid within the three years of the Neroche Scheme, but the timescales involved in habitat restoration are such that the desired end point of creating diverse vegetation communities from scratch will not be achieved until several further years have elapsed.
Livestock will be introduced into each area in the spring following forestry and fencing operations the previous summer/autumn. An initial ‘pioneer’ herd was established first at Wych Lodge, which has been expanded and moved in subsequent years to take in each new area as it becomes available. Grazing densities will be low, and numbers and duration of grazing will be adjusted in the light of observed results. Surplus male calves will be removed and finished off site for the local market. The welfare of the livestock will be monitored closely, including though periodic visits by an independent vet.