New kids on the heath

New kids on the heath

The newest members of the conservation grazing team, golden Guernsey kids. Image by Molly Toal

We've welcomed some new additions to our conservation team with the birth of several Golden Guernsey goat kids at Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve in Merseyside.

The kids were born under the watchful eyes of our Conservation Grazing Project staff and will join the ranks of goats, sheep, ponies and cows that munch their way through scrub on nature reserves across our region, helping to provide homes for rare wildlife.

Thousands of years ago, large herbivores like aurochs and elk would have roamed Britain. These ancient animals were like living lawnmowers, eating scrub, tough grasses and tree saplings so other plant and wildflower species could flourish. This in turn helped specialist invertebrates, birds and mammals to thrive in the differing habitats. Without grazing animals, these open habitats would have eventually been dominated by trees and the wildlife living there would have been replaced by woodland species. Conservation grazing animals replicate the effects of wild herbivores on the land.

A pink blanket of heather growing on the rare habitat of Freshfield Dune Heath in Merseyside

Freshfield Dune Heath is an internationally rare habitat and would be lost without conservation grazing. Image by Alan Wright

Merseyside Reserves Officer, Mike Cunningham, says:

“Our grazing animals make an invaluable contribution to maintaining and improving a broad range of rare and threatened habitat types right across the Wildlife Trust's area.

“Where mechanical land management practices such as mowing would result in a uniform and indiscriminate removal of plant species, grazing animals can be utilised to achieve a more diverse structure to the vegetation within a given area, and can access areas that may not be possible with machinery.”

A lapwing nesting on the grass with two chicks next to her

Lapwing and chicks by Darin Smith

Our grazing animals help to maintain many habitats including grassland, heathland and coastal marshes. The animals are currently used on nine of our nature reserves, including Lunt Meadows, Cutacre and Freshfield Dune Heath. Mike and his colleagues also work with private landowners and partner organisations to manage land for conservation value. Each site has different habitat management needs, influencing which grazers you’ll find there and when, since sheep, goats, cattle and ponies all graze the land differently.

Mike explains:

“At Freshfield Dune Heath, grazing animals help to restore wet meadow habitat, reducing more competitive grass and rush species, and allowing more specialist plant species such as ragged-robin, bird's-foot trefoil and marsh marigold to flourish. Where breeding waders are present, such as at Lunt Meadows, cattle and sheep are used to create more short grazed areas favoured by lapwing and tussocky areas for species such as snipe.”

Grazing forms the main management tool at Freshfield Dune Heath where, without management, natural processes would cause this internationally rare habitat to be lost. The goats and other grazing animals play a vital role in keeping scrub species such as gorse, birch and Molinia grass at bay. By tweaking stocking densities and timings of grazing, a mosaic of differing vegetation structures is achieved, creating a dynamic environment that is home to nearly 2,000 species, including sand lizard, common lizard, spring sedge and annual knawel.

Golden Guernsey goat kids suckling from their mother

Sheep, cows and goats all graze differently, but for now the kids are on mum’s milk. Image by Molly Toal

The breeds used are very important to the team and are selected for their ability to thrive on the nature reserves all year round. Mike adds:

“Our Bagots and Golden Guernsey goats are a fairly recent addition. For our sheep we have mostly Hebrideans and a small number of Norfolk Horn. Both of these native rare breeds are well adapted to living in more natural settings, have the ability to cover a good range whilst maintaining condition, and to thrive in often nutrient-poor environments with varied vegetation. Cattle-wise we have a small herd of Longhorn cattle, a few Highland cattle and we work with a local farmer who boosts our numbers with around thirty Red Poll cattle. We also work with a local Exmoor pony breeder and have several mares each year.”

Sheep, goats, cattle and ponies all graze the land differently

The animals operate as a part of a system. Once they’ve finished grazing on one site, they are moved to another available site that would benefit from grazing. With so many animals at different sites to keep an eye on, it is certainly a full-time job and one that requires a lot of input from a wide range of people. Mike adds:

“We are incredibly lucky to have so many fabulous volunteers at all of our sites that help with daily checks, as well as key volunteers who play a vital role at more labour-intensive times such as lambing, shearing and routine testing and treatments.”

On top of the new kids, staff will be kept busy as April marks the start of lambing season.

To keep up to date with the grazing animals and discover the many other conservation projects carried out by our Wildlife Trust, follow us on social media using the buttons below.