Studland:the Mild, Mild West

PUBLISHED: 15:03 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

Reviving cow herding on the heath is one of the objectives of this initiative

Reviving cow herding on the heath is one of the objectives of this initiative

After a high-profile search to revive cow herding on Studland, the National Trust received applications from as far away as South America. So, as the Trust's Maurice Flynn explains, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the best person for the j...

If you listed the stereotypical traits most people expect of a cowboy, Lisa Hawthornthwaite doesn't instantly seem to fit with many of them. While she does ride a horse, she's barely five feet tall with masses of curly blonde hair and has an obvious Lancashire accent.

"I don't use a lasso either. In fact, I can barely tie my own shoelaces," quips Lisa.

Every day, whatever the weather, Lisa is corralling a herd of Red Devon cattle around the 750 hectares of heath. She guides them to the areas most in need of grazing to help preserve the mix of plants and animals which make this part of Dorset one of the most species rich in the country.

It was last August that the National Trust on Studland revealed it was searching for wannabe cowboys and cowgirls. Who would have guessed that an advert for a new cow herd could attract so much attention? But it sparked the interest of journalists everywhere.

"I heard it on the radio and thought it sounded crazy!" admits Lisa. "Then the more I heard, the more I thought 'hang on, that really sounds like me'. I have spent my whole life playing with animals, horses, cows, sheep, dogs. Anything with one eye or three legs was always welcome at my home.

Lisa moved to Purbeck just over eight years ago after studying agriculture at Myerscough College in Preston.

"My first job here involved night-milking around 300 cows every day, starting around 1.30am. Not ideal but it did quickly get me used to dealing with cattle," says Lisa.

She has a clear love of the outdoors in her blood, a background in livestock farming and is also a keen horse rider.

"While it wasn't vital that the new person should ride, it's already proving to be a huge benefit," says David Hodd, Countryside Manager. "We're using a herd to sensitively graze the heathland, so if we can also reduce the use of vehicles that is an obvious help. It also means that anywhere the cows can go on four legs, Lisa can follow on her horse."

Lisa's 'company horse' is Ossie. The five-year-old rare-breed Highland pony started his new job with Lisa in October; up until then Ossie's background was dressage.

"Our second ride out was on the same day as the Army was blowing up bombs from the war found on Studland beach. The ground shook but Ossie's attitude was 'what bomb?' I couldn't believe it," says Lisa.

"Highland ponies are fantastic working animals and he just takes the world in his stride. I would hate to say it but he is like a giant Shetland pony - so cheeky, a little bit stubborn but very loveable."

The grazing carried out by the Red Devon cattle is vital for preserving the diversity of plant life and wildlife found on Purbeck - a 10km stretch of which boasts more plant species than any other part of the UK and is home to every one of Britain's six native reptiles, including endangered sand lizards and smooth snakes.

Cattle prevent the heathland from becoming overgrown with trees and losing much of its rare wildlife.

Lisa's appointment is not only about conservation, it helps revive a working tradition which died out on the heath more than 200 years ago. It also means there is no need to install fencing to keep the cattle corralled, which keeps access to the heath fully open for visitors.

"This is an exciting project to trial in the UK," says David. "The practice still exists in eastern Europe and in parts of Holland. We want to see whether this can be successfully replicated here, which will allow the internationally important Nature Reserve at Studland to get the ongoing care it needs.

"Trialling grazing methods like this is very much what the National Nature Reserves were created for. They were intended to be outdoor laboratories for experimenting with conservation management techniques to see what works best to protect and encourage our wildlife and nature.

"The other advantage of this approach is that as well as increasing grazing, there'll be someone with the animals at all times, so if anyone has questions about the cattle, wildlife or Studland generally, there is someone on hand to help."

After the initial media interest in the job advert itself, Lisa's and Ossie's arrival saw them being filmed and interviewed from here to the US. "The American journalists were hysterical," says Lisa. "I think they were more interested in my British accent and English humour than the fact we were reviving cow herding on the heath. They kept saying 'you're so jolly'. It was hard to keep a straight face.

"It's been great though, as people have been coming up to us on the heath and saying hi, and I've been recognised in some very unexpected places, while shopping or even eating pizza. One waitress said 'You really look like that new cowgirl. Are you that new cowgirl? Oh, my god, you are that new cowgirl!' It really lifts your spirits to know that people are so interested and excited by what we're doing."

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