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.

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.

The landscapes and wildlife habitats of the UK are not truly “natural”, rather they’re the result of the interaction of natural processes and the activities of people over millenia. Some of Dorset’s most valuable wildlife habitats, such as heathlands and chalk downlands, have been shaped by centuries of grazing by livestock.

Heathland was originally created by early farmers clearing trees so that they could farm the land. Subsequent grazing by domestic livestock over the centuries helped prevent trees, scrub and tall grasses from returning, and provided the open sunny conditions required by specialized heathland plants, reptiles, birds and insects. Grazing generally continued until the early 20th Century, when agricultural use of heaths became uneconomic. Since then, much heathland has been lost to development, ploughing, forestry or neglect.

By the 1980’s less than 7000 hectares remained of the vast swathe of Dorset heathland which stretched for some 50,000 hectares when it was immortalised as Egdon Heath by Thomas Hardy. The last decade or so has seen a concerted effort to restore large areas of Dorset’s neglected heathland by clearing trees and scrub using machinery and herbicides. Grazing by livestock is seen as a viable way to maintain these large areas, to the benefit of the rare heathland wildlife that require open habitats.

Today, 96% of Dorset’s heathlands are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is a national designation that gives a high degree of protection from development as well as requiring owners to manage their sites for their special wildlife. Natural England is funding the reintroduction of grazing to SSSI heathlands throughout the Bournemouth and Poole conurbations via the Dorset Urban Heaths Grazing Partnership, in order to improve habitat condition.

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).

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.

Cattle and Ponies You Might See on the Heaths

The Grazing Partnership uses native cattle breeds, with hardy ponies at some sites.

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”. The Dorset Urban Heaths Grazing Partnership has already built up a breeding herd of over 40 Shetlands, which is one of the largest herds on mainland Britain.

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.

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.

We check the temperament of all individual animals to ensure they are suitable for sites with public access.

Visitors to grazed reserves are requested to observe the following:

1. Please close gates behind you (gates that should be open will always be locked into position)

2. Please prevent your dog running right up to the livestock. Dogs with strong herding or hunting instincts can harass or even harm cattle and ponies.

3. Please do not feed the livestock. 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.

To contact the Dorset Urban Heathlands Grazing Partnership:

For more information on conservation grazing in general: