The National Trust has announced that livestock will be used to mimic the grazing habits of “wild ancestors” to benefit the wildlife at the Purbeck Heath’s National Nature Reserve. The Trust launched the 3,400-hectare priority habitat on the Purbeck Heaths in Dorset three years ago and plans to create a 1,370-hectare open “savannah” for free-ranging, grazing animals as it would have been “thousands of years ago”. The livestock, which will include cattle, pigs and ponies, will graze like “extinct species” to help wildlife such as sand lizard, southern damselfly and heath tiger beetle to thrive in the heathland landscape.
The Purbeck Heaths super reserve is a “rich mosaic of lowland wet and dry heath, valley mires, acid grassland and woodland, along with coastal sand dunes, lakes and saltmarsh”. It is one of the most “biodiverse places” in the UK and is home to thousands of species of wildlife, “including all six native reptiles”. According to David Brown, National Trust lead ecologist for Purbeck: “Over large swathes of open grassland and heath, these domestic grazers are now mimicking their wild ancestors, who would have shaped habitats in the past. We can’t bring back aurochs, the native ancestors of our domestic cattle, but we can use our 200 Red Devon cattle to graze and behave in equivalent ways. Similarly, Exmoor ponies mimic the actions of now-extinct tarpan horses, and the quirky, curly coated Mangalitsa pigs are rooting around like wild boars. We’re also discovering that by letting them get on with their own thing as much as possible, our grazing animals explore new habitats and discover different types of vegetation to eat – all of which help create a more dynamic and complex ecosystem.”
The National Trust believes that “by giving cattle, ponies and pigs this huge landscape to wander around, they are helping rare and threatened species such as Purbeck mason wasps, and heath bee-flies disperse and build stronger populations”. The Purbeck Heaths partners have also brought together local businesses, community groups, parish councils and schools to create a sustainable tourism plan to manage the impact of visitors on nature and also increase the value of the landscape to local people and the economy. Tom Munro, Dorset’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty manager said: “As well as making the landscape richer for nature, some of these grazing animals will provide good quality food and support the local economy through ecotourism, such as camping and safaris.”
The Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve is the largest lowland heath National Nature Reserve created by seven landowners, including the National Trust, Natural England, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Forestry England, Rempstone Estate, Dorset Wildilfe Trust, and Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. The Dorset-based nature reserve has 11 types of priority habitat to “enable wildlife to move more easily across the landscape”. The National Nature Reserve (NNR) combines three existing NNRs at Stoborough Heath, Hartland Moor, and Studland and Godlingston Heath.
The National Trust’s initiative to use livestock to mimic the grazing habits of “wild ancestors” to benefit wildlife at the Purbeck Heath’s National Nature Reserve is a groundbreaking approach to conservation. By allowing domestic grazers to mimic the actions of extinct species, the Trust is creating a more dynamic and complex ecosystem that will help rare and threatened species to thrive. The Purbeck Heaths super reserve is one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and is home to thousands of species of wildlife, including all six native reptiles. By working with reserve partners and local businesses, community groups, parish councils and schools, the Trust is creating a sustainable tourism plan to manage the impact of visitors on nature and also increase the value of the landscape to local people and the economy. The Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve is a shining example of how conservation and economic growth can go hand in hand.