Dogs and Grazing Animals

Conservation Grazing

Those of us who walk our dogs on the urban heaths will increasingly come across areas being grazed by cattle or ponies, bringing scenes reminiscent of the New Forest to our local heaths.

Heathlands are not truly ‘natural’ but are the result of the interaction of natural processes and the activities of people in the past, so it is necessary to actively manage them to maintain their wildlife value. Without management, Dorset’s precious heathland would gradually revert to birch and pine woodland, with bramble and rhododendron undergrowth. The open landscape needed by heathland wildlife (and enjoyed by visitors) would be lost.

Will grazing affect my enjoyment of the heaths?

Experience has shown that people and grazing animals can enjoy the heaths together. Only small numbers of animals are brought on to site and often visitors do not even see them. Typically, visitors (perhaps after some initial trepidation), soon grow to appreciate the livestock as interesting additions to the scene. Cattle have grazed Bournemouth’s busiest nature reserves (such as Hengistbury Head, Turbary and Kinson Commons) for many years with great success.

The temperament of all individual animals is checked to ensure they are suitable for sites with public access.

Dorset Dogs Dogs and Grazing Animals

Visitors to grazed reserves are requested to observe the following:

  • Do prevent your dog from chasing wildlife and farm animals. Keep your dog in sight and do not allow them to chase wildlife or grazing animals, other dogs or pets.
  • Keep your dog on a lead near grazing animals. Even friendly dogs who don’t normally chase may set grazing animals running in fear and this can have serious consequences including injury and the loss of unborn young. There are also incidents when grazing animals are injured or killed, this is now thought to be more often when owners are not present, as well as sometimes when they are but aren’t able to call the dog back. It is really helpful if land managers let people know if grazing animals are on a site that has public access rights and preferably the area that they are in where there are different fenced areas.
  • It’s unlikely that you and your dog will be chased by farm animals, but if you are or you feel threatened, let your dog off the lead so you can both get away more easily. Stick to areas with public access where grazing animals should be more used to people being around, divert from the path if necessary to avoid livestock and don’t approach animals or get in between adults and their young.  
  • Please do not feed the livestock. Approaching and feeding animals can lead to them becoming ill, putting themselves in danger by approaching others or becoming a problem by approaching other people or parked cars they see in pursuit of food. This is especially important with ponies, since uncontrolled feeding can lead to laminitis (a very painful hoof condition), and also teaches them to pester other visitors for food. During harsh weather, all our livestock are given hay if needed.
  • Please close gates behind you (gates that should be open will always be locked into position).
  • If you see any grazing animals in distress please call the contact number given on site.
Dorset Dogs Conservation Grazing

Cattle and Ponies You Might See on the Heaths

Shetland cattle are used on heathlands because they are very hardy and will thrive outside all year round with only natural shelter, and maintain their condition on low-quality grazing. They are placid by nature and easily managed (they were originally developed on the Shetlands as a house-cow). They readily eat willow, birch, bramble and gorse, and so are ideal for heathland scrub control.

We are helping a rare breed. In the 1950s, fewer than 40 pure-bred Shetlands remained, and today the breed is still listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as being “at risk”.

Galloway cattle, another hardy breed, can be seen at Hengistbury Head and Parley Common, whilst Exmoor and New Forest ponies are used on Turbary Common, Bourne Valley and Upton Heath.


There are two main aims to heathland management, the first is to have a range of different aged heather and the second is to stop the colonisation of invasive plant species.

The main management plans involve grazing by animals and some mowing of the heather to create mosaic patches of different ages and height. Grazing also helps in the control of the invasive species.

Some of Dorset’s most valuable wildlife habitats, such as heathland and chalk downlands, have been shaped by centuries of grazing. Grazing promotes a wide range of plants, helps to reduce some unwanted plants and produces a variety of heathland micro habitats which encourage different heathland wildlife. Mowing and cutting heather and gorse helps to maintain a range of vegetation heights suitable for different wildlife. Scrub which threatens to overtake the heather and gorse is also cut or mown. Scattered groups of trees provide shade and homes for wildlife but need to be managed to prevent them shading the heathland plants.

Many local reserves have been successfully grazed for years. The marshes and grasslands at Hengistbury Head and Stanpit Marsh have been home to cattle for decades, whilst heathland sites such as Avon Heath Country Park, Stephens Castle, Upton Heath, Turbary and Kinson Commons have been grazed for several years.

Urban sites where grazing by cattle and/or ponies has been reintroduced over the last few years are: Canford Heath, Dunyeats Hill (adjoining Delph Wood), Corfe Hills (heathland surrounding Broadstone Golf Course), Parley Common, Monkswell and Ashtree Meadows at Christchurch and Bugdens Meadow at Verwood.

Small numbers of animals are being introduced to more heathland sites across south east Dorset thanks to Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. This draws on EU funding to ensure that land is managed in a way that protects and enhances its value for wildlife.

Why Has Grazing Been Reintroduced?

Regular, light cropping of the vegetation by livestock brings several benefits:


  • It helps prevent scrub and trees from taking over.
  • It creates a patchwork of different vegetation heights and bare ground that suits the widest range of wildlife species.
  • Dominant grasses are reduced, so giving rare plants a chance to grow.
  • Dung is required in the life cycle of certain invertebrates, including the nationally rare Hornet Robber Fly (the UK’s largest fly, recently recorded on one of our grazed sites).