Wood Wise: conservation grazing

The Woodland Trust’s latest Wood Wise publication focuses on conservation grazing by a range of species. There are a number of case studies from different organisations to show best practice and share experiences.

Cattle, sheep, goats, ponies and pigs can all be used to graze, browse or root in woodland and open space habitats. If properly managed, these actions can increase the structural diversity of such habitats, improve biodiversity of flora and fauna, restore land, and preserve important archaeology.

The case studies within Wood Wise look at each of these grazers and how their individual attributes can best be used to achieve desired outcomes. Along with work by the Woodland Trust, there are also welcomed contributions from the Neroche Project, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Wyre Community Land Trust.

Wood Wise issues can be viewed online via this link. If you would like a pdf version please email your request to Conservation@woodlandtrust.org.uk


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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14 Responses to Wood Wise: conservation grazing

  1. M says:

    Land management and know how can be great tools to achieve what overgrown and dense forests have become.
    If using these types of animals to help with restructuring of such habitat then why not do it?
    Prescribe burns, and thinning can only do so much and sometimes erosion occurs before such areas can have enough time to regenerate itself.
    Most of our forest are found to unhealthy by overgrowth, or over thinning of trees, dense duff layer, over grazing by domestic livestock, private residences being built to close together and the result has been that wild life is now moving into residential areas!
    Trial & error makes for awareness of man’s efforts to correct what has been done to all of Earth’s natural resources, so hats off to “That Effort!”

  2. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting
    for your next post thanks once again.

  3. Imogen Radford says:

    Many have serious concerns about the harmful impacts of grazing, for example on reptile populations. See reports outlined in this article:
    “The report states that the use of grazing and controlled burning to manage and ‘conserve’ natural habitats in the UK appears to be governed by a ‘one size fits all’ mentality in which the specific habitat requirements of different animal groups are ignored, resulting in habitat mis-management. …
    “Some land managers argue that a ‘Dynamic Forest Mosaic’ (e.g. rotational clear fell forestry) at the landscape scale, in certain locations, would be a better solution to manage lowland heath. It would be financially sustainable, provide a mixture of permanent and rotational open ground, more robust to recreational disturbance and be more resilience to climate change.”
    And here is a graphic example of the one-size-fits-all approach, fuelled by grants, similar to that we have seen in Sutton Common in Suffolk which Clive describes:

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thank you for your comment Imogen. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to nature and the appropriate management of habitats. Conservation grazing, when done sensitively, can provide a number of benefits. But any management decisions should be taken on a case by case basis, to ensure the individual needs of the site are met.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    This is a link to a review of “naturalistic grazing” versus natural processes that covers some of the case study locations shown in the edition of Wood Wise:

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thank you for putting forward the other side of the grazing argument. Conservation grazing can provide benefits, but it must be done sensitively and appropriately.

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    There is nothing worse than a management approach to woodland that is driven by funding than by any ecological sense. Grazing woodland with livestock is an affectation of the conservation industry, not a “natural process”. There is no evidence in the literature to support the Vera theory that herbivores “drove woodland-grassland processes to create a shifting mosaic of habitats”. The influence of native herbivores in the past can not be considered in isolation of the affects of carnivores in modifying their distribution in the landscape, and thus it was wolves and lynx that were the controlling factor in woodland distribution.

    There are a number of issues surrounding the application of herbivore pressure under these “nature development” approaches, most stemming from a far too liberal use of livestock as analogues for aurochs, but without any ecological context eg.
    – breeding in “wildness” from park cattle is an anthropogenic action that lacks any means of evaluation
    – de-domestication of livestock through “naturalistic grazing” – defined here as free-living and resource limited – is wishful thinking when it probably only turns the clock back 1000 years. The last aurochs in Britain were 3000 years ago.
    – the evidence suggests aurochs had a distinctive distribution in Britain, depending on the flat land of lowland floodplains (wetland more than forested) and were co-located with elk (moose). Britain had no bison, but in Europe, there was probably an ecological separation between the preferred habitat of the aurochs and that of the European bison (Bison bonasus), with the aurochs living in wetter forests and the European bison in drier forests
    – Evidence from Neolithic and modern cattle populations, and ancient dietary surveys, supports the notion that domestic herds were largely separate from aurochs. Aurochs probably remained relatively genetically distinct until they became extinct in the seventeenth century. (Edwards, C.J. et al (2007). Mitochondrial DNA analysis shows a Near Eastern Neolithic origin for domestic cattle and no indication of domestication of European aurochs. Proc. R. Soc. B 274: 1377–1385). The separation of habitats for domestic cattle and aurochs suggests that Neolithic farming groups exploited environmentally-different areas for their cattle from those used naturally by aurochs, and it is the former that these advocates for livestock as analogues appear to be attempting to emulate, not the natural ecology of the latter
    – in relation to the habitat selection of aurochs, there is never any reference to plant strategies (competition, disturbance, stress) in response to grazing pressure, nor of the grazing reversal hypothesis whereby under differing edaphic conditions, grazing can lead either to an increase or decrease in diversity
    – it is not the case that aurochs were unaffected by carnivores. As is shown in Yellowstone in the case of buffalo, the very young, aged or ill aurochs were at risk from wolves (van Vuure 2003). Predation is not the only aspect of carnivore influence, behavioural modification is also significant in a “landscape of fear” which redistributes herbivore pressure
    – the inevitable enclosure of these grazing animals in “nature development” projects by fencing, and the absence of behavioural modification from carnivores, means there is no spatial element in their herbivore effect. While managers may vary the number of herbivores, they will be incapable of creating the spatial variation of herbivore pressure that is induced by the physical presence of carnivores, or the ability to migrate through larger landscapes depending on season, nutrient variation etc.. This spatial element was picked up by a Dutch group, but who were primarily focused on the spiny/thorny shrub element of the overwhelmingly debunked Vera Hypothesis. They highlight the importance of the ecological restoration that takes place when herbivores are removed:
    “temporary herbivore absence – due to a (mimicked) population crash or migrations – can lead to increased vegetation structure, with expected positive impact on associated biodiversity. Such fluctuations in herbivore populations presently rarely occur due to the fragmented distribution and limited size of nature areas that do not allow significant migrations, and due to the strict management of herbivore populations”
    (Smit et al (2010) Effects of cattle and rabbit grazing on clonal expansion of spiny shrubs in wood-pastures Basic and Applied Ecology 11: 685–692)
    – other free-living herbivores are rarely factored in to the use of these analogues/reconstructions in “nature development”. Since the location of their study sites was the Netherlands, the above group (and the study of Baronie Cranendonck) did have to factor in the significant herbivore pressure arising from free-living rabbits, which I believe are not native to the Netherlands, as they are also not native to Britain. The existence of free-living deer is often overlooked as well.

  6. Clive Coles says:

    Found the Autumn very interesting ~ especially the comparison between various species of grazers and browsers.
    As I said in my opening comment there have been some successes and some failures in the Suffolk countryside. Dunwich Forest i regard as a success story, this sadly is not yet the case on Sutton and Hollesley Commons.
    The Local Authority, and a private estate, started denuding their landscape of trees about 20 years ago. Much of the surrounding lowland heathland areas of the Sandlings were heather covered ~ the hope was heather would spread across the resently deforested landscape. The programme, run in partnership with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust , enclosed the land with stock fencing and started to utilise sheep to graze the enclosures.
    As reported in the Autumn Woodwise, sheep have been shown not to be that effecive as they are selective grazers. Bracken and bramble quickly establised and after 15 or so years of trying the sheep were withdrawn. The Local Authority experimented with chemical spray dispensed from the air. They did not persist with this treatment however as the chemical has now been withdrawn by the EU.
    They then based their approach on the Dunwich solution and introduced a small handfull of Exmore ponies to the area. These animals face an uphill struggle as much of the original heather has been swamped by the growth of bracken. After two more years there has been minimal success. The bracken has taken hold. It is probably time to consider the introduction of browsers but what species will be up to the challenge ?
    But the damage to the environment has been done ~ we have removed woodland and destroyed habitat in the name of “conservation” !
    What i take from this experience is that it is possible to transform a landscape to enrich bio-diversity if you base your programme based on proper scientific/environmental research, We cannot afford to play at being amateur gardeners with a “let’s try it and see” approach . What the Dunwich experience suggests is that it is better to introduce open areas within forests to create a mosaic of planting rather than to deforest entire landscapes.
    Nowadays however funding opportunities accelerate and cloud judgement. Heathland restoration is the current “flavour of the month”. Where therefore money is on offer landowners and conservation trusts will go for it before a source of funding dries up.

    It is surely time to rethink how we transform, enhance and manage our environment.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thanks Clive, a very interesting comment that raises some important points. We must always be careful when managing habitats to find a balanced approach based on scientific understanding and research. I hoped Wood Wise would help share some of this research/best practice so that others could learn from the work already being done.

      Open space habitats within woodland mosaics can be highly beneficial to a range of species; especially with the extensive loss of heathland and grassland during recent history. However, ‘deforesting entire landscapes’ can have devastating impacts on wildlife and natural processes (also called ecosystem services).

      Landscape scale conservation on a large scale looks to offer the greatest opportunities. This approach can involve the management of a range of habitats, connecting these to provide the greatest nature/wildlife benefits. Grazing within appropriate levels can be a factor in this, but it must be intelligently and sensitively controlled – as with all management activities.

  7. Clive Coles says:


    You seem to heve put the link to the Summer addition rather than the Autumn edition of Woodwise. A shame as the publication looks as if it could be quite useful. The key words in your introduction are “If properly managed”. There have been some successes but too often in my county of Suffolk the experiments have resulted in failure. Access to HLS grants makes heathland restoration an attractive proposition for cash strapped local authorities and the conservation trusts. The funding does not however seem to follow through to the heathland management phase once the initial felling has been done. Broadleaf woodlands have been ripped out (without environmental risk assessments being required) and instead of heather regenerating we now have a landscape covered in bracken and bramble. We need to learn from these mistakes.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thank you for your comment Clive. But apologies for the error with the link! This has been rectified and it should now take you to the Wood Wise collection on Scribd where all issues can be accessed.

  8. Pingback: Wood Wise: conservation grazing | Conservation & Environment | Scoop.it

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