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The small herd of six Dexter cows started roaming Avon Valley Woods, Woodleigh, at the weekend, with the aim of increasing biodiversity.
‘Cows in Clover’ is a ‘conservation grazing’ enterprise run by Desley White and John Severn out of South Brent.
Desley explained why large animal grazing is an important part of land management. She said: “Anyone with higher tier stewardship will have grazing written into their land management plan. The effects of large animals grazing areas of land are enormous. Not only do they change the structure of woodland by physically moving around, bashing through and creating pathways, but they have much more subtle effects too.
"Wherever they make an indent with their feet as they walk, they create a brand new, tiny habitat. A footprint can open up some space to let a seed germinate, or create an area for insects, which leads to a wider variety of species.
"Another thing is their dung, not only does it put nutrients back into the soil, but where it lands it will attract dung beetles, which will attract bats, which will attract birds etc. Birds will go through the dung to find insects and will spread the dung around and with it the nutrients."
Desley went on to say that the cows won’t eat grass close to where they have pooed, so this creates areas of longer and shorter grass, which is important to encourage different species of insect and other animals that all need their own different niche in a habitat.
At least one of these will be fitted with a GPS collar, and visitors to the wood will be able to track online where the cows are, either to be able to spot them, or avoid them, whichever they like.
The tracking system will allow the Woodland Trust, who owns the land, to assess where the cows have been and what impact they’ve made in helping to regenerate the wood and its wildlife. It will also allow the cows’ health and wellbeing to be monitored.
The cows will be grazing the young woodland and are part of the Woodland Trust’s approach to managing it. Planted as a Millennium Wood in 2000 on what had been arable fields, the new trees are flourishing and the land is coming back to life, but the wood structure lacks the variety that would help it support a wider range of plants, insects, birds and other animals.
Conservation grazier John Severn, of Cows in Clover, said: “The trampling of cows’ hooves will stir up the soil, releasing and encouraging seeds to germinate and new plants to flourish.
“The impact of these large grazing beasts on the woods will also be structural and immediately visible -they will bash their way through, creating new paths and keeping glades clear of shrubs. The result will be a more diverse mosaic of open grassland, scrub, maturing woods and sun-speckled glades supporting a diverse range of wildlife.”
He added: “Our Dexters have been reared to be comfortable around people and dogs, and are calm and steady creatures but some dog walkers may appreciate knowing where they are so they can walk in a different part of the Avon Valley Woods.”
As part of regenerating this landscape, introducing large herbivores like cows adds a whole new layer in the ecosystem and is expected to have dramatic benefits for wildlife.
Paul Allen, Woodland Trust site manager, said: “Cows are instigators of dynamic change. They will bring a wild influence to this landscape which will evolve as they browse, roam, and make it their home. I am very excited to see how the trees and wildlife develop.
“What is great about the tracking system is that we’ll be able to see what parts of the wood they favour and then match that up to how it has changed. And of course, I can’t wait to meet our new woodland workers: Denzil, Bisy Backson, Dumbledore, June, Bella and Berry.”
Dexters are often chosen as a conservation grazing breed as they are small but hardy mountain cattle, used to living on steep slopes and being outside in all weathers. John aims to keep a herd in the Avon Valley Woods all year round. The woods will offer much needed shade on hot days, while in the winter, they’ll find shelter from the wind.
The range of trees, grass and wild plants the cows can choose to eat also allows them to shape their own diets, self-medicating if needed or turning to certain plants for key vitamins or minerals.
Track the cows here: digitanimal.co.uk/cows-in-clover-digitanimal/ or use the QR code on signs in the woods (signal dependent).
The Avon Valley Woods are spread across 139 hectares near Kingsbridge in South Devon and include newly planted woodland alongside steep wooded valleys. It is particularly special to the Woodland Trust as it includes the first site that the charity acquired in 1972.
You can find out more about Cows In Clover here: www.southhams.com/news/traditional-grazing-practices-are-helping-to-bring-back-traditional-species
You can view a video of the cows arriving at Avon Valley Woods here: thewoodlandtrust.sharefile.eu/cowsinclover
Photo credit: Cows In Clover
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