Selection of livestock type is important; they need to be appropriate for use on a particular wildlife habitat whilst also working effectively as part of the wider farm management system.
Livestock farming has played a significant role in creating many of the UK’s wildlife habitats and grazing continues to play an essential role in wildlife management. The different aspects of grazing management, especially the timing of grazing, the numbers of animals and the livestock type all interact to determine the wildlife value of grasslands and other habitats.
Livestock types interact with their environments in different ways. These differences can be employed to best manage individual wildlife habitats. The three main types of livestock used to manage wildlife habitats in the UK are cattle, equines and sheep. Each of these has separate characteristics and management needs, each of which can be used to the benefit of wildlife. These characteristics are predominantly related to differences in body size, dentition and digestive systems, and are thus greatest between species. Differences between breeds are relatively minor in comparison. However breed choice within the different livestock types, along with bloodlines, livestock upbringing/handling and husbandry systems will also determine how effective individual animals are in managing wildlife habitats.
Livestock grazing plays an important role in habitat management. Choosing the right livestock to graze an area will help achieve good habitat conditions for wildlife. Livestock selection is also important for animal nutrition and welfare and for the economics of the farming business. Each of the three main types of livestock (cattle, sheep and equines) has size, physiological and behavioural differences which allow them to achieve different farming and wildlife objectives.
Livestock eat and remove vegetation which helps to maintain a diverse mix of plants and vegetation structure. Through the action of trampling they also break up thatch (dead vegetation) and create bare ground which is important for both seed germination and for ground nesting insects. As different livestock types graze, trample and utilise a grazing area differently, selecting the best livestock type for the job or combination of livestock types, will ensure the greatest benefits for wildlife.
Animal welfare must be considered alongside the wildlife benefits. It is important to consider how the nutritional requirements of livestock can be supplied by the available vegetation. This may require using different livestock types at different times of the year, and/or moving livestock around according to their age or stage in their breeding cycles.
Other factors such as available resources, including people, water supply, alternative pasture, supplementary feed, and appropriate handling facilities, will all influence choices of livestock type.
Selecting the right livestock type requires consideration of their potential impact on the particular habitat to be managed. The individual grazing characteristics of cattle, sheep and equines produce very different habitat conditions, for example sheep may produce a short sward while cattle will produce a more tussocky grassland. The key grazing attributes of cattle, sheep and equines provided below can be used to guide which livestock type may be most appropriate for particular wildlife habitats.
Cattle generally graze at taller sward heights than sheep. Combined with their patchier grazing characteristics, and a natural tendency to avoid grazing near cowpats, they are more likely to create the uneven vegetation structure that benefits wildlife. Cattle use their long tongues to grip vegetation before tearing it away from the ground or plant, which makes them useful for grazing coarse grass growth. They can be used to reduce coarse grassland species such as tor-grass on chalk grasslands, tufted hair grass, purple moorgrass and rushes. These species are most palatable either in the spring or when they regrow following cutting.
As cattle cannot select individual plants or select flower heads, they are often the preferred graziers on flower rich grasslands.
Favourite resting up areas can become trampled and heavily dunged, and although this can create valuable bare ground, care is needed to prevent damage to important wildlife habitats.
On land with public access careful consideration of age and gender of cattle is required. Specific rules exist for grazing intact bulls on sites with public access whilst cows with calves may react to dogs.
Equines have a different digestive system to ruminants, relying on a high throughput of vegetation, achieved by long grazing times (horses can spend more than three quarters of their time grazing). They more readily graze low quality forage such as tall, fibrous grasses and sedges.
Equines have teeth at the top and bottom of the front of their mouths which allows them to be selective feeders. They can create closely cropped lawn like vegetation amongst areas which are left untouched. They predominantly eat grasses, especially sweet grasses, and avoid flower heads. Horses and ponies will browse accessible tree and shrub growth so can be used to help control scrub.
Favourite resting up areas can become trampled and heavily dunged and care should be taken not to damage important habitats. Equines dung in latrine areas which can create rank grassy areas and increased enrichment, and disturbance can encourage the spread of thistles, docks and nettles.
Sheep are highly selective grazers. Their narrow mouths and biting grazing mechanism allow them to select specific plants, and even particular plant parts such as flower heads and buds within a vegetation community. Sheep generally select the most nutritious and palatable vegetation available, and thus have the capacity to alter the plant community over time. They graze close to the ground creating tightly cropped lawns but find it difficult to graze tall vegetation so these areas can end up becoming trampled and flattened. Sheep will also graze low growing shrubs and control woody species by bark stripping.
Sheep are much lighter than cattle and equines, so cause less damage to sensitive or wet ground.
Nutritional requirements of livestock
Different wildlife habitats and grassland provide differing quantities and quality of forage for grazing animals. It is sensible to plan the grazing management of wildlife habitats carefully so that it fits effectively into the wider farming system. Part of this planning is matching the nutritional requirements of the livestock to the nutrition being supplied by different habitats/vegetation at different times of the year. As nutritional requirements of livestock depend on their age or stage in their breeding cycles, it should be possible to manage less productive habitats and grasslands with less demanding livestock. For examples dry stock, store cattle or replacements can be used on these habitats, leaving animals with higher nutritional requirements, such fattening cattle or sheep with lambs at foot to utilise better grazing.
The key to success is the ability to be flexible. Having nowhere else for the livestock to go when food is becoming sparse on the site or where the condition of the wildlife habitat has been achieves means that stock may remain on a site and start to damage it.
Reintroduction of grazing to wildlife habitats
Introducing livestock to an area needs careful planning and consideration of the desired outcomes for the wildlife habitat. Equally important is consideration of the practicalities such as stock containment, water supplies, identification of dry lying up areas and handling facilities. Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to stock check, round up or find a sick animal on a site with open water, scrub, long grasses or trees.
Areas accessible to the general public with a wildlife interest can attract large numbers of people. Whilst many visitors have a sympathetic understanding of the countryside there will be others who allow their dogs to roam out of control, not shut gates and not know how to act around cows and calves. Where livestock grazing is being reintroduced to new areas it is essential to work with local communities to keep the public informed.
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