The unmistakable white belt on a Belted Galloway (Picture: David Ellis, NT Volunteer)
One of the most popular questions people ask me at Coombe Hill is "Why do you graze the Hill?" and today was no exception. I was fixing a gate by the main entrance and more or less everyone that came passed me asked the grazing question. So, my brain got thinking about an easy way of explaining it and I came up with the 3 main issues and to make it easy, they just so happen to begin with A, B and C.
A - Animals (I told you this was simple!)
All kinds of animals are used to graze land these days, horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, even lamas! Over the past 20 years at Coombe Hill, we have tried a number of different options. Traditionally it has always been sheep but with the Hill getting more and more use from dog walkers this was becoming a real issue. We use to lose up to 5 sheep per year due to dog attacks, they were extremely difficult to round up at the end of summer and they were not eating as much as we needed them too. We then tried Dartmoor Ponies and these were great to start but they became a bit too friendly with visitors and started getting a bit pushy when it came to picnics so we turned to cattle. The breed we have used for the past few years is the Belted Galloway and they have done a fantastic job. Originating from Galloway in the west side of southern Scotland, they are adapted perfectly for poor upland pasture in really exposed terrain. A summer on Coombe Hill for them is like us going on holiday to Spain. This year, due to a change in grazing contractors , we are trying out a new breed, the Pedigree Beef Shorthorn. The breed has developed over the past few centuries from Teeswater and Durham cattle originally found in the north east of England. To find our more about the breed then please visit http://www.beefshorthorn.org/
It is the first time this breed has been used for conservation grazing on Coombe Hill so we shall track there progress closely over the new few months and report back at the end of the season (around August/September time).
B - Behaviour
Knowing how to behave around the cattle is key, and the first and best bit of advice we always give out is to keep your distance and ignore them. We understand that people like to get a closer look but this can be done from a distance. If you have a dog, keep it under close control and do not let it get near the cattle. If your dog is on a lead and the cattle approach you then let your dog off the lead, chances are they are only coming over to have a look so as soon as the dog moves away from you, so will the cattle. Don't worry, if your dog is fit and healthy then it will out run a cow with ease. If you really feel threatened by them then make your self big, flap your arms and make a loud silly noise and they will soon move on. Obviously we can not guarantee you will never have an incident with the cattle at Coombe Hill but cases are extremely rare and are normally always down to human error. Keep your distance and that situation should never happen.
C - Conservation
Conservation is the whole reason why we graze Coombe Hill and it is by far the most important tool we have to hand. Chalk Grassland is the most diverse habitat we have in the country, it is also one of the rarest and has been declining in size for the last 50 years. The thin, lime-rich soils derived from the underlying chalk attract plants that don't grow in other soils. To maintain the habitat, we need to keep the grassland cut so it does not scrub over and turn back into woodland. If the grass is left to rot down then it will enrich the soil which is bad news for all the species that thrive on the nutrient poor soils. So, the only option we have is to graze. The cattle eat the grass and small scrub and then they take it away with them, perfect. It is the most efficient, economic and practical way to maintain chalk grassland.
The Belted Galloways happily grazing the west slope with the Aylesbury in the distance
(Picture Joe Mayled, NT Ranger)
I hope this has helped to explain why we graze Coombe Hill. Next time you are out on a walk, just remember A, B and C and it might make you see the landscape around you in a different light. You may enjoy the walk more and not worry so much about the animals.