Grazing livestock in the Chilterns

Grazing livestock in the Chilterns

With spring comes longer days and warmer weather. As the ground dries up, livestock are turned out to graze on lush spring grass.

Livestock grazing is an age-old tradition in the Chilterns. In addition to resident beef and dairy herds, and flocks of sheep, drovers used to herd livestock onto high ground as they passed through on their way to market.

Before fencing was introduced, the patchiness produced by shepherding livestock around was extremely good for biodiversity.

Nowadays, many of the higher and more inaccessible areas of grass have fallen out of use, partly because the ground is unsuitable for modern-day machinery, and partly due to the costs and logistics of installing fencing and water supplies on remote, steep areas. As a result of thinner and less fertile soils, these areas support a range of flowering plants rather than a few species of grass — which isn’t suitable for high-output commercial livestock breeds.

Without grazers, habitat management of these valuable sites is either not carried out at all (leading to even-aged growth of scrub) or left to mowers, strimmers and chainsaws to mimic the suppression of plant growth. But livestock don’t just limit unwanted plant growth, they provide many other benefits:

  • Trampling – provides disturbed ground that acts as a nursery for seedlings and basking or hunting areas for reptiles and warmth-loving invertebrates.
  • Dung – hosts over 250 species of invertebrates, providing a food source for bats, badgers, birds, and foxes.
  • Grazing – dominant grasses get eaten off and less competitive species thrive.

Livestock grazing is better than mowing or cutting as it removes plant material gradually and gives less mobile species a better chance to move to other areas. Grazing effects are very hard to mimic with machines and, in the long-term, are expensive and time-consuming.

Walking near livestock

Whether on nature conservation sites or working farms, livestock grazing is common in the Chilterns and while rare, serious incidents involving livestock can still happen.

Farmers are allowed to keep livestock and horses in fields with public footpaths, with the exception of bulls of specific breeds over 10 months of age. The risk of incidents occurring increases with the presence of dogs, and it is strongly advised that all dogs are kept on leads around livestock, regardless of their recall ability.

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The Countryside Code recommends the following tips for staying safe near livestock:

  • Give livestock plenty of space.
  • Leave gates as you find them.
  • Do not feed livestock or horses.
  • Keep dogs on leads. If you feel threatened, let your dog off the lead – this makes it easier for both you and your dog to get to safety.

For more advice on staying safe around livestock: How to walk through a field of animals: Ramblers

Case study: cattle grazing at Lodge Hill

Lodge Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on an isolated hill near Princes Risborough that hosts remnant populations of rare chalk grassland species like glow worms, frog orchids and yellow meadow ants.

Areas of juniper and dogwood scrub are popular with migrating warblers and other birds, but in the absence of grazing animals, efforts to control the spread of these species into the valuable chalk grassland fell to volunteer groups.

The Chalk, Cherries and Chairs project supported the clearance of scrub and facilitated the installation of a livestock corral, fencing and water supply. And in the spring of 2021, for the first time in decades, a small herd of cattle was moved onto the hill; by grazing, trampling, and defecating, the cattle will keep the scrub at bay and allow the chalk grassland species to thrive.

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You can help this vital conservation work by keeping your dog on a lead in sensitive sites like this, even if there are no livestock present. Free roaming dogs can negatively affect the populations of many species of reptiles, small mammals and ground nesting birds.

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