Our rugged North Coast is one of the island’s most stunning and dramatic locations and has recently been designated a National Park. It forms an almost continuous belt of natural wild landscape from St Catherine’s in the east to Les Landes in the west and contains an intricate network of habitats supporting a wide variety of wildlife. Despite its beauty and importance it is a region suffering ecological decline. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century the coastal headlands and north facing escarpments were an important part of the rural economy. Cattle, ponies and sheep would have grazed upon these areas and gorse and bracken would have been collected for fuel and bedding respectively.
Today such practices no longer take place which has resulted in bracken and scrub encroachment, leading to a decline in biodiversity, with many coastal and heathland species such as the Yellowhammer becoming extinct locally. In 2008 the Trust reintroduced 20 primitive Manx Loagthan sheep into an area of 180 vergées between Sorel Point and Devil’s Hole. It was hoped that the livestock would help to open up the scrub, control competitive species and prevent further encroachment, whilst in the longer term there would be improvements in heathland habitat and biodiversity. Aaron Le Couteur of The Reserve agreed to take care of the sheep and over the last 8 years he has successfully built up the flock to over 200, whilst still providing both lamb and wool to the local market.
Supplemented with careful chemical control and regular cutting there has been a visible reduction in bracken and gorse encroachment with a short grass sward becoming predominant in certain areas. This improving habitat has enabled the Chough to be reintroduced to the Island after a 100 year absence, as part of the Birds on the Edge Project in partnership with Durrell and The Environment Department. Requiring an insect rich maritime habitat with a sward no higher than 5cm, these charismatic red billed birds feed on a range of insects including beetles, ants and cranefly larvae, many of which will have benefited from the presence of animal dung. With acrobatic air displays and a distinctive shrill call, the Choughs have become a welcome feature of the coastal landscape but above all have come to demonstrate and typify the considerable value to be secured from conservation grazing schemes.
Ecological Benefits of Conservation Grazing
Grazing can be used to develop a mosaic of habitats. Well managed heathland contains areas of grassland, scrub, dwarf shrub and also bare ground. This habitat can only be maintained through active management, of which livestock grazing is an essential component. Some animals will select particular plant species, and in doing so will determine the structure and floristic composition of the vegetation. Further, animal dung and areas of bare ground produced in hoof marks are good for some specialist invertebrates and birds.
Grazing can be used to manage habitat change more gradually. Livestock grazing removes plant material more gradually than cutting or burning, giving less mobile species with an opportunity to move to other areas.
Grazing can be used to control invasive species such as scrub (including gorse), bracken, purple moor grass and rank grasses.
Grazing can be used to remove nutrients from heathland. Heathland vegetation requires a low nutrient status. Grazing animals can result in a net removal of nutrients from a site, maintaining the low nutrient status and controlling invasive species which often rely on higher nutrient levels.
With the re-introduction of livestock, the heathland has the potential to increase local incomes and jobs, provide additional grazing land for local farmers and provide a local and environmentally friendly source of high quality food.