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Dorset Wildlfie Trust and their appeal to restore grazing land

PUBLISHED: 14:04 22 January 2014 | UPDATED: 14:04 22 January 2014

Red Devon and Belted Galloways in the snow at Kingcombe. Hay from the meadow helps keep them going during the cold months. Credit: Maurits Fontein

Red Devon and Belted Galloways in the snow at Kingcombe. Hay from the meadow helps keep them going during the cold months. Credit: Maurits Fontein

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Cattle and sheep play a vital role in helping to keep Dorset’s grasslands and meadows wildlife-rich, which is why Dorset Wildlife Trust set up their Pastures New project to help restore this precious habitat

In the cold dark days of winter, thoughts of summer are more than welcome. And what could sum up it up better than a meadow full of wild flowers, buzzing with insects with birds singing overhead.

In Dorset, wildlife-rich grasslands are still a feature we enjoy: the county boasts chalk downland, flower-laden clay meadows and lush, wet grasslands in river valleys. However, we are particularly lucky. Across England and Wales, there has been a staggering 97% decline in species-rich grasslands since the 1930s – 64,000 square kilometres have been lost and this kind of habitat is now among the most threatened in the country. The Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) is working hard to preserve what remains in our region, particularly on its reserves in the west of the county.

Why has so much of this quintessentially English landscape been lost? “An enormous amount of it went under the plough to feed the country during and after the Second World War”, explains Debbie Watkins, the Trust’s West Dorset conservation manager. “Even parts of our reserve at Kingcombe Meadows were ploughed up during the war – those were quickly put back into grassland rotation so the seed bank remained. But for a large part of the country, the grassland was never restored.”

Development has played its part too, covering meadows with buildings. The change in agricultural management to more intensive farming also had an impact - for example, the introduction of inorganic fertilisers, and tax incentives to increase production. Subsequently the tiny parcels of remaining grassland became less easy to manage as Debbie explains: “The surviving remnants on chalk, for example, are usually on steep hillsides. If you have a sliver of grassland habitat on an arable farm, how would you graze it – an essential part of management – if you haven’t any livestock?”

It’s not all bad news. In recent years landowners have more aware of the importance of species-rich grassland habitat, and crucially they are also becoming more enthusiastic about protecting it. Debbie cites the DWT Pastures New project, a grassland restoration scheme for Dorset landowners and farmers that supports grassland management and conservation. It’s an initiative, she says, that is making a real difference.

“For some areas, all that’s needed is a tweak of management, such as putting in drainage. If the land has been cultivated to a large degree, you need quite an active restoration process to put grassland back – and you need to ask yourself how you’re going to manage and use the land. What we don’t want to see is that sort of land abandoned.”

To that end the Trust itself is pursuing an active policy of conservation grazing at its Kingcombe Meadows reserve. Here they use organic sheep and Angus and Red Devon cattle to maintain its pastures and meadows. “It is traditional husbandry,” says Debbie. “We use the cows and sheep in rotation.”

Animal action is a key part of managing species-rich grassland, explains Debbie. Timings of grazing and cutting depend on which species are found on the land. “If you have annual flowers in a hay meadow, you want them to set seed,” she says. “Pasture will have a slightly different assemblage of plants – perennial species that are suited to being grazed. You don’t want to graze hard all year; you relax at certain times to allow plants to come up.”

Much species-rich grassland contains a wide variety of plants: some flower early, others bloom later, some are shallow-rooted, while others have deeper roots. “In any given year, the assemblage will be slightly different, according to the weather,” says Debbie, who adds that the plants also act as a buffer to the weather.

Managing grassland is also about creating a habitat where all wildlife can thrive. “We have a really good cross-section of different grasslands: calcareous, neutral and acid, dry and wet,” says Debbie. “They support a massive list of species ranging from invertebrates and birds, through to small mammals and the larger animals that hunt them.”

Careful management means that all the species’ differing needs can be accommodated by moving cattle and sheep on and off the land as appropriate. One of the key species at Kingcombe, for example, is the beautiful marsh fritillary butterfly, which likes a longer sward. Cows rip and tear the grass as they feed which creates a varied, rougher environment where the butterflies prosper. Sheep are nibblers and are good at keeping weeds in check. They crop the grass short which provides the ideal conditions for the rare fungi found at Kingcombe.

Dorset Wildlife Trust’s conservation grazing programme has been an outstanding success and using herds and flocks in this way is the most economical way to manage wildlife-rich grassland. However, the current tranche of funding is rapidly running out and the Trust urgently needs to raise £19,000 to cover the next year’s costs.

“We breed our own livestock as we’re a closed herd so that helps keep costs down,” explains Debbie. “Staffing is a big part – we have one person dedicated to the livestock, two others who help out, seven days a week in all weathers and at all times of day. Tasks vary from hauling straw for winter bedding to making hay. Lambing and calving are particularly intensive periods. We have to find the annual cost for looking after our livestock every year – most commercial farms would be selling produce, but part of our ‘produce’ is wildlife so we don’t have the same income as a commercial farm.”

The cows and sheep at Kingcombe are as vital a part of the conservation team as the rest of the DWT staff – can you help support them for another year?

If you would like to find out more information about the grazing appeal and donate, please visit: dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/grazingmeadows

Wildlife Talks and Workshops

25 Jan: Winter Wader Identification Workshop: Learn how to identify a range of wading birds that visit in the winter with Bournemouth Natural Science Society (BNSS) and ornithologist Ian Julian. Meet 10.30am at Stanpit Marsh nature reserve car park (BH23 3ND) Bring wellies! More details 01202 553525.

27 Jan: An Ecological Survey of Studland – Following in the footsteps of Cyril Diver: Illustrated talk by David Brown at 2.30pm, Langton Matravers Village Hall.

30 Jan: Urban Wildlink – Creating the ‘Great Heath’ living landscape in Dorset: Illustrated talk by DWT’s Director of Operations, Brian Bleese at 7.30pm, Methodist Church, Wareham.

For a full list of events in Janaury visit the website dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk

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