Conservation Grazing - Frequently Asked Questions

Conservation Grazing - Frequently Asked Questions

Highland cattle - Nathan Millar

Physical fencing

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust are contracted to deliver the conservation grazing project as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Foresters Forest programme, which will maintain the open habitat structure that many species need to thrive.

For the grazing livestock to managed effectively, carefully planned physical fencing is being used to keep them within the grazing compartments while maintaining the open feel to the landscape.

Why are you fencing off the Forest?

The aim of the project is to create and link targeted larger areas of open habitat within the wider woodland context of the Forest of Dean.  A number of important species that are reliant upon open areas have declined due to the changing management practices over time, when historically there would have been more grazing animals and traditional coppice practices to maintain structural diversity of the vegetation.

The open space restoration/re-creation will be provided by the selective removal of commercial conifer plantation. If left unchecked, the subsequent vegetation re-growth will try to reach its climax vegetation community and will eventually become woodland. In order to maintain the open habitat structure, traditional, hardy animal breeds will be used for conservation grazing on the sites. These breeds have been produced to thrive on rough, native vegetation that wouldn’t be palatable to more modern commercially farmed livestock. Native breeds of livestock will browse the emerging scrub, keeping it supressed and thus maintaining open habitat and structural diversity. Albeit in low stocking densities, the livestock will also create bare areas of ground which provide important habitat for species such as woodlark and adders.

With modern day legislation, it is important that animal welfare is top of the agenda. With this in mind, the only feasible way of managing the different types of livestock required to maintain the open habitat is through carefully planned livestock fencing, suitable for all livestock types. The fencing is designed to keep livestock within the grazing compartments but to maintain the open feel to the landscape.

Will the public still have access to the site?

Yes. The design of the fencing is aimed to make people feel part of the open habitat landscape and the conservation grazing project. This is achieved by incorporating the tracks within the perimeter of the fenced boundary rather than people feeling isolated from the site by looking over the fence line. Wherever possible the fence line will be concealed behind the tree line so it is less obvious and softens the visual impact on what is otherwise an open landscape. Pedestrian access points will be sited where the main desire lines run across the site, so that people are not impeded from accessing the landscape from multiple locations. When stock are not grazing the site, the gates will be left open to allow free movement of people, wildlife and vehicles.

What about cycling, walking, pony trekking through the site?

Gate installation along main access routes/tracks will be kept to a minimum and all gates will be fitted with self-closing spring mechanisms and pedestrian/equestrian friendly latches to make it as easy as possible for passage.

Why can’t you fit cattle grids so that there are no obstructions?

The introduction of large scale conservation grazing within the Forest of Dean is a new concept for all of the partners involved. It is imperative that all systems put in place are as secure as they can be whilst we learn about the livestock and how they behave on the sites. In the first instance, having secure gates gives us peace of mind regarding the security and welfare of the livestock whilst they get used to their new environment. As we learn animal behaviour in this area of the forest, we can start experimenting with different systems and processes within a controlled environment and monitor how the livestock react. It is hoped that we will eventually be able to introduce items like cattle grids, and potentially invisible electric fencing systems which will give more flexibility and reduce maintenance costs of fencing. The implementation of these alternative features would only be considered if deemed appropriate to animal and public welfare and if funding can be sourced.

What about the visual impact?

We understand peoples concern with regards to the visual impact the installation of fencing may have in what is otherwise an open landscape, and every care has been taken to minimise this. The compartments are large enough so that they are not visible as enclosures, and wherever possible, are concealed amongst the tree line in order to break any visual impact. The compartments will be designed so that people are welcomed into the enclosures and feel part of the landscape rather than being fenced out and feeling as though they left looking over the fence.

 

What about the free movement of wildlife?

The fence line will be monitored both prior and following its installation. We will identify where there are wildlife tracks/runs which dissect the fence line and look to install deer jumps and badger gates at these points. As we are using standard stock netting, the majority of wildlife will not be impeded by its presence. 

What about the danger to wildlife?

The most risk for wildlife relating to stock fencing are the dangers associated with large mammals being trapped and caught in the wire. Some instances of jumping deer being caught in the barbed wire strands at the top of the fence have resulted in us modifying the design and taking appropriate measure to mitigate for this. The design of the fence line has been approved by all stakeholders, and has been modified to have only one strand of barbed wire at the top, which is ‘pig ringed’ to the top of the stock netting. The barbed wire is necessary to deter cattle and ponies from leaning on the fence line and causing it to sag, thus reducing its effectiveness. ‘Pig ringing’ the barbed wire to the stock netting, avoids deer being able to tourniquet their legs in the wire if they fail to fully jump the fence line, but also ensures an effective stock proof fence.

In order to maintain the height of the fence line, two strands of barbed wire are located at the bottom of the stock netting. This will deter wild boar from trying to squeeze underneath but allow access of small mammals.

What about the public’s safety around dangerous stock?

We are aware that incidences can and do happen between livestock and the general public and take care to put processes in place to mitigate against such occurrences so far as is reasonably possible. Before animals go on to a site, we conduct a site risk assessment specific to the grazing animals. If a risk is flagged as being too high, we will either take action to manage the risk or make a decision not to proceed with the grazing in that instance. We also produce emergency action plans, which detail the processes should an incident on the site happen so that all relevant parties are prepared and informed.

Whilst we want the public to continue to visit and enjoy the sites when grazing animals our present, we need to manage the risk accordingly. At the offset we will put up signage at all access points on to the site to notify people that grazing animals are present, and to inform them of the do’s and don’ts whilst they are there. This includes discouraging feeding, which is often the main issue surrounding problems between livestock and people.

It is important to make the public aware that the animals are not pets, but that they are semi-domesticated grazing animals which are suited to the habitats and grazing that they are occupying.

The stocking densities of livestock on the sites will be quite low and in most circumstance the livestock will move away from the public areas if disturbed. We will not be keeping high risk animals on the site such as cows with calves, bulls or stallions.

How long will the fence line be in place for?

It is envisaged that the fencing will be in place for a minimum 10 year period (which is the lifetime of the Farm Business Tenancy Agreement GWT hold with the FC). During this timeframe, GWT will be looking to create a sustainable model for continuing with the grazing regime.

Who is responsible for maintaining it?

Under the conditions of the Farm Business Tenancy Agreement that Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust hold with the Forestry Commission, it is the responsibility of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to maintain and replace fencing during the 10 year period which the tenancy agreement covers. Most of the fencing around the compartments will be new at the beginning of the project. We will recruit volunteers to conduct regular fence line checks and report back any issues so that they may be rectified in a timely manner.

Why can’t a different, less invasive type of fencing be used?

The fencing needs to be appropriate for securing three separate livestock types which include ponies, cattle and sheep. The three livestock types all graze/browse differently and encourage a diversity of vegetation type and structure. In order to secure the livestock, we have had to adopt a design which is appropriate for all. The eventual use of sheep to graze the sites is the determining factor in having to install stock netting which is more visually obvious.

It is important that a proven method of stock control has been adopted whilst we condition the livestock to the sites. Other options such as invisible fencing have been explored but we have found that they still require an hard external perimeter fence whilst the livestock become ‘trained’ to the invisible boundaries. You can read more about this in the following section of the FAQ's.

On a traditional farmstead, if animals do escape the enclosure they predominantly end up in an adjacent closure where recapture is relatively straight forward. In the Forest environment, we need to avoid the potential for them to escape into the wider woodland where re-capture would be much more difficult and potentially dangerous.

How’s the fencing being funded and what is is the cost?

The fencing is being funded by two separate streams. The majority of the fencing is being paid for by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme which GWT have entered into and runs for 5 years (Jan 2017 to Dec 21). This provides capital works for maintaining and restoring habitats which are a national priority, in this case, heathland. The capital works are pre-approved outcomes agreed with the governing body Natural England, and in the case of the fencing the aim is to provide a sustainable grazing practice which maintains an open and diverse habitat mosaic. CSS only pays a percentage of the associated costs and GWT will be financing the shortfall.

The secondary source of funding is provided for by the Foresters Forest Heritage Lottery Fund Programme under its Conservation Grazing Project. The funding is again allocated to different outcomes with a budget line earmarked for fencing off open habitat restoration sites.

How will you ensure that there are no impacts on wildlife during the construction of the fencing?

Risk assessments and method statements are written prior to any potentially invasive management taking place on the site. The method statements provide a code of practice for the project manager to follow and to ensure the contractor is compliant when on site. Nature reserves are obvious hotspots for wildlife and it is important to ensure that we are minimising the impact on species despite the overall objective being to improve the habitat for their benefit. The method statements are written as guidance for protected species but include good management practice that should be followed at all times, and each method statement is written specifically for the contract taking place.

How many animals will be grazed on the site and what impact will this have on the landscape and habitat?

The aim of conservation grazing is to provide the ideal conditions for wildlife and the environment for the benefit of the target habitat. This normally requires a low stocking density using hardy native breeds to achieve the required outcomes. In the case of open habitat restoration and recreation in the Forest of Dean, there are times when the livestock may need to be pushed harder in order to re-set the vegetation and encourage the right structure. Open heathland habitat is in a very dynamic stage of succession which means that it is always changing and needing to be managed in order to create the optimum conditions for the wildlife which it benefits. Most of the time this will require ‘maintenance’ grazing, with involves low stocking densities throughout the growing periods. Low stocking densities are attributed to anything under one livestock unit per hectare and in the case of the conservation grazing project stocking densities will be closer to 0.5 livestock units per hectare.

What type of animals will be grazed on the site?

Three different stock types are required to meet the objectives of the restoration/re-creation and management of an open habitat mosaic in the Forest of Dean. These are as follows:

Native rare breed Ponies (Exmoor)

Exmoor ponies are a hardy, native breed which has an ability to do well on conservation sites when kept in extensive situations. They maintain their condition well on poor forage and they are tolerant of extreme weather conditions, but do require some shelter on the site.

They have a largely grass based diet but will take coarser vegetation and browse scrub and gorse depending upon food availability. They will also strip bark off broad leaved trees and shrubs and readily consume coarse herbs such as thistle.

They are inclined to keep away from people but can be panicked by dogs and approach the public if inappropriately fed.

Native rare breed cattle (Possibly Highland/Belted Galloway)

They are an extremely hardy breed and are appropriately used as a grazer and browser of coarse vegetation on large sites. Tolerant to the most adverse weather conditions, they have a double coat, the outer of which is waterproof and underneath a very fine, wool-like layer provides insulation. The outer layer is shed every summer, which allows them to tolerate hot weather whilst their large horns provide a mechanism for radiating away heat from the body. A grown adult will weigh an average of 400kgs. Heavy hooves are excellent to weaken bracken strands by weakening rhizomes.

They are well adapted to grazing coarse forage, preferentially taking grasses and herbs. They are able to control scrub growth and encroachment through browsing and they graze in a cyclical pattern, travelling miles in a day. Dispersal of individuals effectively distributes the grazing effect across the site. They use their long horns to push their way into scrub, suppressing its growth, which is a favourable attribute when managing open habitat.

Native rare breed sheep (hebridean)

Hebridean’s are a hardy breed of sheep and are very popular in nature conservation grazing schemes due to their ability to thrive on poor vegetation sites and graze/browse them in a beneficial way. They are able to cope with extreme weather conditions, as their fleece sheds water well and they can adapt to a range of climatic conditions.

As a highly suitable breed for grazing unimproved vegetation on a range of sites, they effectively control scrub and coppice woody re-growth through bark stripping, browse on bramble leaves and tips, graze on coarse grasses and are beneficial to the establishment of heather by reducing the vigour of other species.

The breed will generally avoid contact with people and will rarely have a condition score of 2.5, making them appear rather thin when shorn. They are a horned breed.

For more information on breed profile please visit Grazing Animals Project website following the link below:

http://www.grazingadvicepartnership.org.uk/breed_profiles_handbook.html

Whose animals will be grazed on the site?

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust own 10 Exmoor ponies and 25 hebridean sheep, the numbers of which may fluctuate over time depending upon the site grazing requirements and age of the animals.

For the first year (2018) a cow hire agreement will be entered into with a local grazier to provide six highland cattle to graze the sites for a trial period. This is to ensure that we can monitor the impacts this has upon the site and become confident with our systems and set up. In time, GWT may look to purchase its own small herd of Native breed cattle in order to deliver its contractual commitments.

In future years, it is hoped that we can start to accommodate other grazier’s animals as part of the sider open habitat management programme under the Foresters Forest remit. With this in mind, we are engaging with commoners in order to determine their grazing requirements, and how we might be able to work alongside them to deliver the conservation aims of the project. It is important that sustainable grazing systems are re-introduced into the forest in order to maintain the open habitat and wildlife benefits this provides.

Who will look after the animals and ensure their welfare is maintained?

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s western region reserve management team will be responsible for the management of the stock that are used on the site. The day to day responsibility will be led by the Grazing Officer, who will make sure that all welfare standards are maintained by recruiting, training and mobilising a dedicated group of volunteer stock checkers. The grazing officer is charged with adopting the highest welfare standards and making sure that we are compliant with all relevant legislation by keeping records up to date.

Why are the commoners not grazing the site?

In the first instance, we are aiming to restore and re-create open heathland habitat within the Forest of Dean. This habitat has been lost over the years and requires a combination of management practices to provide the right conditions for grazing, which in itself is a costly and time consuming process. For the areas that fall within the bounds of the current Countryside Stewardship Scheme, the prescriptions prohibit GWT from utilising a secondary grazier under the terms of the Native Breed at Risk Supplement. 

GWT recognises the benefits of common grazing and the objective is to work alongside the commoners association to provide a suitable grazing environment for their livestock in the future. Wherever possible, opportunities will be advertised to the commoners and support provided to encourage uptake of sites. These sites will be predominantly a mosaic of scrub rather than a traditional meadow grass.

What water supplies are available for the animals?

At present there are no mains supply water facilities on the conservation grazing sites. To combat this, a number of new drinking ponds have been dug to provide on-site drinking water for stock. As a back up to this, two mobile water bowsers have been purchased and are located on site whenever stock are present. The water level/quality in the bowsers is checked regularly by the Grazing Officer, Reserve Manager and volunteer stock checkers and the water replaced if contaminated or running low.

How long will the animals be on the site?

The duration that stock are present on site may vary depending upon the stock type, the season and the habitat management requirement. The priority open heathland habitat mosaic is in a dynamic stage of succession and is always trying to establish its climax vegetation. The grazing animals will be used to check the vegetation and maintain rotational open habitat across the site in a more natural and sustainable manner than if it were controlled mechanically or through burning. The impact of the stock on the site will be monitored regularly and the management team will encourage the stock to move into under-grazed areas or remove them if grazing pressure is too high. The different types of stock provide different grazing pressure on different vegetation communities and they will be used in combination to achieve the structural vegetation diversity targets set out by the Countryside Stewardship agreement.

What will happen to the animals once they have been taken off the site?

In most instances, the animals will move from one open habitat site to another under the conservation grazing project. Grazing will be limited within the first few years as the habitat develops and it might be necessary for the animals to be housed on other land that the Trust own throughout the county, particularly in the winter periods when food is scarcer.

Are there plans to fence off further areas in the Forest of Dean?

The Forestry commission are in the process of writing the strategic view which will detail the forest plan. This is a consultative process which will capture all stakeholders ambitions for managing the forest in one holistic approach. As part of the Forest plan, further areas of open habitat will be identified where conditions are appropriate. Some additional clear fell operations have already taken place on adjacent compartments to the current Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust managed reserves and these will be incorporated into the conservation grazing project. In most circumstances, these additional areas will be contiguous to the current compartments and compliment the feeling of an open landscape within the forest setting.

How can I get involved with the project?

The forester’s forest programme is designed to be community led and with 38 separate projects being delivered, there are many opportunities to get involved. With regards to the conservation grazing project, we require dedicated volunteer stock checkers to help maintain high animal welfare standards and assist our team in all sorts of stock management tasks.

We also provide opportunities to get involved in practical reserve management tasks. Led by our reserve managers, these involve days out on the nature reserve carrying out habitat management and maintenance duties.

There are also opportunities for supporting the team with administrative duties and getting involved with habitat/species survey and monitoring in order to build up the evidence base that our conservation aims our beneficial.

Interested individuals can get involved by either visiting the Forester’s Forest website and signing up as a volunteer, or by contacting Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Volunteer Co-ordinator (Donna Cavill) direct at our Head office.

Contacts

Terry Claxton – Grazing officer

terry.claxton@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

Kevin Caster - Reserves Manager

kevin.caster@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

Del Jones - Senior Reserves Manager

del.jones@gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

Virtual fencing trial

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT), in partnership with Forestry England (FE) and the National Heritage Lottery Fund Forester’ Forest programme (NHLF) will be trialling a new virtual fencing system as part of their conservation grazing project, to assist in restoring priority open heathland habitat at Woorgreens, Edgehills and Wigpool nature reserves. The system we will be using has been developed and supplied by the Norwegian company Nofence Grazing Technology.

What is virtual fencing?

Virtual fencing combines wearable Global Positioning Systems (GPS) collars, cloud computing and online software to remotely control the movement of grazing animals across a designated area. This system has multiple benefits, allowing animals to be tracked in real time and providing data which will inform reserve management operations.

GWT have recently taken delivery of 10 GPS collars which we will be trialling on our Highland cattle over the coming months.  Although Nofence is tried and tested by other conservation grazing projects in the UK, this is a first for them being used on sites in the Forest of Dean and by GWT.

How does it work?

Virtual grazing paddocks can be created by using an app on a smart phone or tablet, as the cattle approach the boundaries of the designated grazing area an audible beep will be emitted from the collar, warning them that they are approaching the boundary limits.

Once they have learnt the meaning of the beep they should turn away from the boundary and the warning will stop. If they continue towards the boundary the collar will emit an electric pulse akin to standard electric fencing already being widely used by livestock managers in the UK.

If the animal passes the boundary, the pulse will stop and an alert will automatically be sent to the grazing officers handheld device, informing them that an animal has moved out of the grazing perimeter.

What will happen to existing fence lines?

Whilst the long-term ambition will be to reduce the need for physical fence lines, initially, there will be a requirement to maintain a hard boundary, ensuring welfare for the both the animals and the public, whilst also complying with animal movement legislation. The virtual fencing trials will be carried out inside the hard boundary, allowing us to experiment and test the system to ensure its robustness.

Why are you trialling this system?

The new technology will allow more effective management of grazing pressure across the nature reserve, for e.g. if ground nesting birds are known to be in an area of the reserve, the grazing animals can be excluded from accessing this area until any birds have fledged. Rather than having to install time consuming and costly temporary physical fencing, the boundaries of the grazing compartment will be set remotely and can be easily changed at any time.

The technology will also improve animal welfare. Whilst robust systems are already in place, the Nofence system will provide 24 hour information on where the animals are. If one becomes isolated from the rest of the herd, this will quickly become apparent through its GPS location, and an immediate investigation regarding the welfare of the animal can be organised.

The system will also reduce staff time spent looking for the livestock whilst carrying out daily checks. Unlike a conventional agricultural system, conservation grazing sites can be large, with many hiding places for animals to take advantage of. A quick glance at the GPS location as the stock checker approaches the site will quickly tell them where the animals are, reducing the time spent on site significantly.

The data collected by the software will allow us to carry out a long-term monitoring programme, detailing the effectiveness of the grazing animals and their benefit to the site and the species we are managing the reserve for. The software produces heat maps showing the concentration of the grazing animals, and this can be overlain by other data sources to ascertain any relationship between the grazing pressure and presence/absence of species wildlife species we would expect to find in the habitat. We can also follow up with other surveys, for e.g. vegetation surveys determining plant structure and the impact grazing is having.

Animal welfare

The GPS collars that have been developed have been extensively tested since 2012 in Norway by Nofence Grazing Technology. The company is one of the market leaders and were chosen as our supplier because for their proven track record of providing other conservation grazing projects being delivered by conservation bodies in the UK.

The collars themselves are designed to pull off if they become snagged in vegetation and their weight is kept to a minimum so that they are not burden to the animal. The electric shock which the collar emits is similar to that delivered by widely used standard electric fence units, lasting for less than a second and only producing a shock after it has already omitted several audible warnings. As part of the trial, cattle will be introduced to the system in a methodical way, first testing their suitability.

GWT employs independent veterinary practices to carry out regular animal health checks on all of its livestock, and also produces animal health plans which highlight checks and measures against any risk factor to the grazing animals’ welfare. We will be working closely with our veterinary partners to monitor for any welfare issues associated with the virtual fencing as part of the trial period and will prepare to review the technology if animals show any lasting signs of distress.

Scientific research papers carried out on virtual fencing animal welfare has shown that animals are exposed to similar stress levels as they would be when being run through a handling system. This is so long as there is a good degree of predictability for the animal. This predictability can be achieved through ensuring the correct processes are followed when introducing the animals to the system, that they are closely monitored, and that any animals which are demonstrating levels of stress are removed from the trial.

At the beginning of the trial, the virtual fencing will not be turned on and no physical deterrent can be administered. The cattle will be fitted with the collars purely to see how they react to them and to assess if there are any issues which arise as a result. Only once satisfied that the collars themselves do not cause any issues will the training to the virtual pastures commence. The cattle will be monitored at all stages by both staff and trained volunteers stock checkers.

Is it expensive?

Th initial outlay for the technology consists of the purchase of 10 GPS collars, chargers and spare batteries. This works out at around £350 per grazing animal. There is also an annual subscription for the access to the management software and mobile providers of around £650. If the number of grazing animals is kept at current stocking rates, the annual cost of the system will only involve the annual subscription payments. In comparison, the cost of maintaining fencing and lost staff time in finding the grazing animals on large sites is significantly more expensive.