Gloucestershire’s stock checkers: making conservation grazing possible

Gloucestershire’s stock checkers: making conservation grazing possible

Kevin Caster, Forest of Dean Land Manager, talks about the importance of our grazing livestock, and the vital work undertaken by dedicated volunteer stock checkers.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) manage nature reserves across the whole of Gloucestershire and grazing livestock are an integral part of the management of the reserves. In the Forest of Dean, we decided to buy our own livestock, making it easier for us to get grazing where we need it and when we want it.

All our livestock are native rare breeds which makes them ideal to live amongst the nature on our reserves. First came Hebridean sheep, then Exmoor ponies, then Highland cattle and finally some Herdwick sheep. The livestock are not for breeding or making money - their only job is to eat lots, stay healthy and grow old.

Owning livestock is a commitment and we must be sure that they are well looked after. Part of this is to ensure that they are looked at on a regular basis. As with many things we do at the GWT we enlisted the help of some wonderful volunteers to help us…

The animals are checked daily by a mixture of GWT staff and volunteers. Any adult can become a stock checking volunteer if they are able to safely get around the reserves to wherever the animals are located. We train all our volunteers in how to check livestock and what to do if they find something wrong.

As we have such a variety in the type of livestock and because they all graze different sites all over the West of Gloucestershire there is lots to check on and we can be moving groups of animals quite frequently. Again, this is made possible by the help of the stock checking volunteers, who also help when rounding up the animals and with routine health care and moving them from site to site.

We use WhatsApp groups to report what we find, post pictures of the livestock ‘at work’ and for chatting about anything to do with the animals. We also have a 24-hour emergency answer machine service just in case something goes wrong. (The answer service alerts nominated members of GWT staff 24 hours a day)

But enough from me, here are what two of our volunteers think.

Highland cattle

Mike Ingleby – Stock Checking Volunteer.

My name is Mike and I've been a volunteer with the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust for a couple of years now. When I first joined, I worked on various environmental and ecological surveying projects but with the arrival of the pandemic these were all suspended. I then learned that the Trust was recruiting volunteers to check the conservation grazing animals and leapt at the chance to work on the nature reserves. I discovered that even in the most severe lockdown, voluntary and charitable work as well as animal welfare issues have been valid reasons for leaving the house!

On arrival at the reserve, the first challenge is to actually find the animals as the typical nature reserve is not flat and open like a farmer's field. The Trust's reserves typically cover half a square kilometre and include small areas of woodland, rampant gorse higher than my head and numerous lumps and hollows in the landscape from a history of forestry or mining. Thus, simply finding the animals becomes a game of hide and seek which can take over an hour. My time on this journey is not wasted however, as I must also check the water supply - maybe a trough or a bowser - and there is always a salt lick put out for the animals. I also try to remain alert to any issues on the reserve such as security of fences and gates, anything that could present a hazard and maybe in return be fortunate enough to see a rare bird or the first frog spawn of spring.

Having located the animals, I approach quietly and take a few moments to observe their behaviour and feeding. I count them and walk amongst them trying to see both sides and both ends of each one. It also is also important to observe them walking if possible.

Finally, I send off my report on the app for management and maybe include a hint of where the animals were hiding today for tomorrow's checker!

Exmoor ponies

Sarah Spindler – Stock Checking Volunteer.

I first became aware of the Conservation Grazing Project almost five years ago when three Exmoor Ponies arrived at our local Wildlife Reserve at Wigpool.  It was my son who introduced me to the idea of becoming a volunteer stock checker. Having spotted a sign appealing for volunteers at one of the gates to the reserve, he suggested that I might like to give it a go. As an Engineer with no previous experience of looking after livestock, I was initially a bit unsure as to whether I would be up to the job but having already become quite attached to the ‘Wigpool 3’ as the ponies had become known by our family, I decided to give it a go.

The initial training was excellent and gave me the confidence and knowledge I needed to undertake the role.  Since starting, the job has proved to be very varied, and the Project has been expanded to include Highland Cattle and Hebridean and Herdwick Sheep. I’ve loved being involved with them all and it has been fascinating to observe how they each contribute to the Grazing Project – the sheep do a great job eating any brambles, whereas the ponies are good at browsing gorse.  And seeing how the Highland Cattle use their horns to access leaves from the top of silver birch saplings is really funny!

No two stock checks are the same and there is always something different to see or someone new to meet. Fortunately, most of the checks are routine; however, just very occasionally there is something amiss, such as a gate left open or an animal that may be unwell and then the importance of having a group of volunteers to carry out regular checks and spot emergent issues becomes really apparent.

Looking back, I am so glad that I made that decision to volunteer; aside from helping to monitor the welfare of the animals, I’ve discovered new Wildlife Reserves across the Forest of Dean and I’ve met some lovely people, including fellow volunteers, Wildlife Trust staff and visitors to the reserves. And there have been some adventures along the way; helping to move the livestock between reserves has presented some real challenges but has been a lot of fun!  Being part of the welfare of these beautiful animals has been a real privilege and witnessing the benefits that the Conservation Grazing Project is having is incredibly rewarding - and being able to give back a little to the place which has been my home for the most part of the past 50 years feels really good.