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Rare breeds help protect Norfolk’s wildlife

A cow and her calf stand in long dry grass. They are some of the rare breeds which roam Norfolk Wildlife Trust land
British White cattle are some of the rare breeds which roam Norfolk Wildlife Trust land (image Andy Dunn)

Herds of rare-breed cattle, Dartmoor ponies, wild goats, and sheep play a vital part in tending Norfolk’s countryside.

Livestock grazing is one of the most important tools for managing Norfolk Wildlife Trusts’ nature reserves. The livestock maintain open habitats allowing a whole range of plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals to flourish.

The livestock are essential to conservation and Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) is helping to preserve national rare breeds of animals at the same time.

A herd of goats graze the long coarse grasses on the cliffs above Cromer, north Norfolk. The pier jutting into the sea can be seen in the distance.
A herd of Bagot goats graze the coarse grasses on the cliffs above Cromer beach (image North Norfolk District Council)

The animals are part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s conservation management team caring for more than 6,000 acres of Norfolk countryside across 50 nature reserves.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s herd of 134 Dartmoor ponies is now the largest in Britain outside Devon. Fifteen more ponies from five different Dartmoor breeders arrived in Norfolk recently to help with conservation grazing. Ponies have been used in Norfolk conservation for more than 20 years. Norfolk Wildlife Trust, working with native breed societies, is helping preserve traditional types of livestock once common across the UK.

British White cattle are the most recent animal added to Norfolk’s conservation grazing team. The breed, which has a history in Norfolk going back centuries, is being used on the Norfolk Broads at Upton Fen.

Dartmoor ponies are used on Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves, mainly on heathland in the North and West of the county and the Brecks.

Two chocolate brown ponies stand among the winter gorse. They are part of Norfolk's conservation grazing project
Dartmoor ponies help with Norfolk's conservation grazing

Ponies can be seen at sites such as Roydon Common, East of King’s Lynn, and Holt Lowes, near Holt country park. They play an important part in improving, restoring and managing the land for wildlife.

Vulnerable Norfolk wildlife species including grayling butterflies, Breckland speedwell, stone curlew and nightjar reap the benefit.

The Dartmoor pony is officially recognised as a rare native breed. These moor–bred, hardy, conservation-grazing ponies thrive on coarse vegetation, and provide a natural way to help manage vital wildlife habitat. The ponies, as selective grazers, create a rich variety of different heights and species of vegetation, preventing delicate habitats from becoming dominated and overgrown.

Other animals used in similar ways by Norfolk Wildlife Trust to control the countryside habitat include Highland cattle and Bagot goats. They do their bit for wilding and protection of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) at Wiveton Downs, Blakeney Esker and North Norfolk’s Salthouse and Kelling heaths.

Wiveton Downs and the Blakeney Esker is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a protected habitat for fauna and flora including the nightjar.

The protected saltmarsh at Salthouse, part of Cley nature reserve, was described by naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough as one of the most important places for wildlife and wildlife-watching in the world. Red squirrel can be seen at Salthouse Heath.

Cley Marshes nature reserve is a haven for birds and birdwatching. The coastal marshes and reedbeds support impressive flocks of wintering and migrating wildfowl and waders. Cattle grazing is essential to help maintain these open grasslands, creating feeding habitats to support the diversity of birdlife.

Gorse flourishes on the sandy soils of Wiveton Downs and Salthouse Heath. Norfolk County Council and Wiveton Parish Council jointly manage Wiveton Downs and use Highland cattle, able to withstand Norfolk’s harsh winter weather, to control the spread of gorse in the winter.

The cattle, with their huge shaggy heads and enormous curved horns, are moved to more lush pastures for the summer.

The University of East Anglia is trialing a project using Highland cattle to graze part of its Norwich campus grounds. They will help to manage the diverse flora and fauna of the fenland, flood plain and meadows at the edge of the campus. The UEA is thought to be the first UK university to utilise cattle for conservation purposes on its land.

Salthouse Heath, four miles along the coast from Blakeney, keeps its gorse and undergrowth in check during the winter with nine nanny Bagot goats and three kids. This rare breed of goat does the same job at Salthouse and Kelling Heaths as the cattle and ponies. The herd spends the summer cropping the cliffs at Cromer and posing for photographs for tourists.

The goats have saved North Norfolk District Council £10,000 in habitat and rubbish control as well as proving a draw to tourists. They have also helped NWT to tackle the gorse on the Breckland heaths near Thetford.

A ‘flying flock’ of Shetland sheep has been set up by NWT to move around its nature reserves to prevent areas becoming overgrown. This is another key part of the conservation programme and has led to NWT becoming the largest owner of pedigree registered Shetland sheep in the UK.

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