Published: 13 July 2018
Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, guardians of Berry Head National Nature Reserve (NNR), are trialling a new targeted approach to conservation grazing of the precious lowland limestone heath on the picturesque headland. A small area of the precious limestone heath has been temporarily ring-fenced from grazing sheep to protect the special plants that grow there.
For many years now, The Trust has employed hardy rare breed sheep to undertake conservation grazing on Berry Head. Such grazing is a very effective tool for managing the diverse habitats at Berry Head NNR. The Soay sheep and, recently introduced, Hebridean sheep love eating the scrub and rougher grasses that would otherwise smother the more delicate and rare species of wildflower and plant found in the lowland limestone heath there. However, they will also eat more desirable species of plants that TCCT is trying to conserve.
In recent months the Trust has been experimenting with a more sophisticated, targeted approach to conservation grazing by utilising temporary electric fencing to exclude the flock from a small concentrated area of the heath. Experience from last year, when we didn’t employ this fencing, demonstrated that the sheep will pick at the tasty young heather shoots if there is a low level of coarse grasses and scrub;. Giving a small area of the heathland a short respite from the sheep grazing allows the grasses and scrub to grow, which the sheep will then focus on instead of the precious young heather.
Out of the 4.7 acres that the sheep normally graze, the Trust plan has excluded them from a very small area of only 0.27 acres. The sheep are free to graze the other 95% of the heathland compartment.
The Trust is using temporary electric fencing as it is considered the most viable, effective and humane solution for the circumstances. Electric fencing is widely used for livestock management within agricultural, equine and nature conservation regimes. It has also been used for many years on nature conservation sites (including many National Nature Reserves) across the country to manage livestock specifically in order to achieve conservation objectives. Our Chief Executive has extensive experience of the use of electric fencing to manage grazing livestock in this way through involvement with the Grazing Advice Partnership. The use of electric fencing gives the Trust the flexibility to target grazing to specific areas for relatively short lengths of time, ensuring that just the right amount of grazing takes place for the right amount of time within specified areas.
The temporary nature of and portability of the electric fencing provides a more efficient option that permanent fencing, which would permanently break up Berry Head into numerous small paddocks; using electric fencing saves on the cost of expensive materials and the manpower needed to install conventional fencing and helps determine where permanent fencing may be needed further down the line. This temporary measure to fence in a tiny fragment of the site, which already has no public access, is also considered the least disruptive to the public use of the site.
The fencing and its use at Berry Head complies with all animal welfare legislation in the UK. Livestock quickly learn to stay away from the fencing either from direct experience of a very brief mild shock if they contact the fence or by following the lead of others in the herd/flock. The shock is sufficient to surprise but not harm the animal in any way; a good comparison is the surprise that we all experience when we receive a static shock off of clothing ; it makes us jump but does no lasting harm. Trust staff check the livestock at least daily and the fence is monitored for any problems too. To date, the flock have shown no desire to enter the fenced area or come into contact with the fence because they have access to plenty of food and water elsewhere on the heath.
Noel Hughes, Countryside Officer for Torbay Coast and Countryside trust said,
“Our hebridean/soay flock has been really effective at grazing down on the scrub and grasses in this compartment which in turn benefits the rare lowland limestone heath. However once the grasses have gone they will prefer to nibble tasty heather tips rather than the unpalatable scrubby species. To prevent this and enable them to continue grazing in the heath we have protected the rare heather with some electric fencing, representing 5% of the total compartment area. All of their food, water and shelter are located outside of this area. The use of this mobile flexible system means that when we remove the flock towards the end of this month there will be no lasting restriction to the public or physical barrier to wildlife. Using this tried and tested system the Trust can be much more targeted in our grazing, thus ensuring just the right amount of grazing pressure is placed on areas at the right time. This temporary system of stock management will also minimise any disruption to the public’s long term enjoyment of the site.”
The electric fencing was installed at the end of June and will be removed at the end of July, when the flock are moved to new grazing areas as part of the ongoing conservation programme.