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Busy bovine conservationists: Cows have returned to Studland Bay after 90 years!

Emma Brisdion

Grazing cattle will boost biodiversity and now, wearing smart GPS collars, National Trust livestock managers can control where the helpful herd grazes from their mobile phones

This June, a herd of 10 Red Devon cattle arrived at their new grazing grounds at National Trust Studland Bay, with a very important job to do. They are an essential part of a Dynamic Dunescapes, which aims to restore 7,000 hectares of coastal sand dune in England and Wales – including Studland’s beloved, historic sand dunes on the Dorset coast.

Coastal sand dunes at Studland, and in the rest of the UK, are in bad condition. To provide homes for a diversity of specialised and rare sand dune wildlife, healthy sand dune systems need a mosaic of habitat types. This includes areas of low vegetation, and bare open sand which is free to move. However, most sand dune habitats are currently over-stabilised and smothered with dense vegetation. As a result, sand dunes are one of the most threatened habitats in Europe for biodiversity loss.

In the 1930s, when cattle used to graze here, Studland Bay comprised of more than 20% bare sand - that number is now less than 2%. The project’s aim is to raise that number to 10%.

Image: BNPS
Image: BNPS

Cattle are considered an effective and natural way to maintain certain habitats. By grazing and trampling, cows help to keep overgrowing vegetation under control in a way that boosts biodiversity. The cattle’s grazing area will be in the central part of the dunes, well away from the beach and from the main paths, where the vegetation is at its thickest. They will break up dense areas of scrub which overtake dune-specialist species, and will feed mainly on purple moor grass and willow in the wet areas, allowing rare plants to flourish.

Their hooves will also create important areas of disturbed ground, exposing the bare sand and creating new habitats that many species of insect need to create their homes.

This year, the National Trust team will use pioneering Nofence technology to guide the cows to graze specific areas that need it the most. The cattle will wear a special type of collar which contains a GPS tracker. National Trust staff can ‘draw’ out the boundary of a virtual fence using an app on a mobile phone. The cattle’s collars will alert the cows with a sound cue as they graze close to a virtual fence, and a small harmless pulse if they continue to reach the boundary, so that they stay within carefully planned areas. Pulses are a fraction of those delivered by an electric fence, and the cows quickly learned to respond to the audio cue, turning direction before reaching the pulse limit.

This makes it easy to know where the cows are at all times, and also to control where the cattle are grazing. The Nofence technology also means that the team don’t need to erect many new physical fences across the dunes, allowing this historic landscape to retain the beautiful character that it’s famous for. A back-up fence with access gates along Ferry Road has been installed for extra protection for the cattle.

Sally and Julia checking up on the herd
Sally and Julia checking up on the herd

Sally Wallington, Dynamic Dunescapes Project Officer who is leading on the cattle introduction and Nofence at National Trust Studland Bay, says

“Studland is one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the country, but, without intervention, its special habitats are gradually being lost. The cattle have been reintroduced to graze and to open up specific areas of the dunes, and are absolutely key to the future survival of nationally rare species.

I’m delighted to see that over the past few weeks, they’ve settled in to their new home really well.”

This summer the herd will graze the heath from June to mid-September. The individual cows themselves have been hand-picked from the National Trust Studland herd, and are calm and docile. Sally worked with the herd last year, training them to use the collars on National Trust land nearby and ensuring that they are used to people and dogs. They will be monitored by an independent vet, and the National Trust grazier will check the cattle daily.

The Nofence system was developed by a company in Norway where it has been used on sheep and goats for about 10 years and the National Trust in Studland were the first in the world to use the technology with cattle.

Julia with one of the arty cows that formed the community art trail through the dunes.
Julia with one of the arty cows that formed the community art trail through the dunes.

To get the public ready to see these busy bovine conservationists in action this summer, National Trust created an ‘Arty Cow’ trail through the dunes. Visitors were encouraged to find ten different life-sized cow boards hidden along walking trails, painted by local schools and art students, to learn about how important the new cattle will be in creating a sustainable future for Studland’s threatened wildlife.

Julia Galbenu, Dynamic Dunescapes Engagement Officer at National Trust, says,

‘Everyone around here is absolutely buzzing about the cows arriving. For the team, this has been a long time coming after years of preparation and planning. The local community have been involved and are really excited to see all their hard work come alive. The ‘arty cows’ have been out and about since Easter, and while they have been adored by everyone, now is the time to replace them with the real thing!”

Visitors are asked not to approach the cattle and to keep a respectful distance from the herd if they spot them at Studland Bay. Dogs should be kept on short leads at all times where the cattle are grazing, and if cattle do approach then let your dog off the lead to protect the your pooch as well as the new livestock. Taking all litter home is also essential in protecting the welfare of Studland’s newest team members.