Conservation grazing

Restoring Surrey's nature

Conservation grazing

© Jon Hawkins

Traditional, sensitive management

The landscapes of Surrey have been grazed for centuries and this has played a crucial role in shaping some of our most precious habitats. The Trust continues this practice to help preserve them today.

Why do we use conservation grazing?

The continuation or reintroduction of grazing is vital for the survival of  habitats such as heathlands and chalk grassland. Many of the flora and fauna that exist within these landscapes now rely on this type of management to survive.

Livestock grazing is also beneficial as it has a less instantaneous impact than burning or cutting. The animals can also access areas which machinery can't. Much of Surrey’s remaining chalk grassland is on steep slopes, so sure footed animals are a more successful management tool than vehicles.

Grazing with cattle

Belted galloway calf and staff

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

The Trust's black and white Belted Galloway cattle are now a familiar sight across much of Surrey.

Grazing is the most natural method of looking after the landscape and the way that cows feed creates a greater variety in the habitat, allowing species such as nightjars, heath tiger beetles, reptiles and cotton grass to thrive.

Belted Galloways are the ideal breed of cattle to graze our sites. These hardy cattle originate from the lowlands of Scotland and have a proven track record in grazing both heathland and chalk grassland. 

Although predominantly grazers, the breed eats a greater degree of scrub and browse than many other cattle types. They don't graze as selectively as sheep and ponies, helping to remove coarse grasses and create a greater variety of structure in habitats. Their bulk also enables them to create areas of bare ground and break up dense vegetation. 

The Trust's Belted Galloway herd currently stands at over 400 cattle, which can be seen on a variety of sites including Chobham Common, Wisley Common, Whitmoor Common and Ash Ranges.

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Grazing with red deer

Red deer stag on heathland

© Jon Hawkins

Pirbright Ranges is a live firing range owned by the MOD and a wildlife rich heathland habitat . 

Access is heavily restricted for safety reasons, which makes it challenging to manage the habitat with conventional techniques. The solution - use red deer, a native species that is ideally suited to the heathland and woodland habitats found on the Ranges.

Although once widespread throughout Surrey, Red Deer in the county are now mostly restricted to deer parks and a few small, wild herds. 

The deer are doing a magnificent job in managing the amounts of pine, birch and gorse on the heath as well as creating a diverse structure in the regenerating heather. As a result, nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler populations are on the increase. 

The Trust maintains the herd at around 160 animals and uses special vehicles and camera traps to monitor their welfare.

Grazing with goats

Goat on heathland

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

Goats are adapted to browse woody material like trees and shrubs. They can eat very prickly plants and favourites include gorse and bramble. This makes them excellent scrub managers. 

Originally from feral populations on the coasts of Devon and North Wales, the Trust’s population of 19 goats are very hardy. The goat's job is simply to eat! They are put out onto nature reserves in small paddocks to eat woody species and stop them from dominating habitats such as heathland and chalk grasslands. 

In the summer you may find the goats on heathland sites like Wisley Common and nearby Esher Common, where they munch through young pine and birch trees, or on chalk grasslands like Hackhurst Down and Betchworth Quarry, where they protect the precious chalk grassland from invading brambles, ash saplings and other shrubs. In the winter they travel to Lightwater Country Park on behalf of Surrey Heath Borough Council.

Grazing with sheep

Hill Radnor sheep and lamb

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

We use rare breed Hill Radnor sheep to graze several of our chalk grassland sites to help keep scrub and tree seedlings at bay.

Mechanical mowing results in cuttings that rot down and release nutrients into the soil that then enrich grassland sites. This process encourages more coarse grasses, nettles and brambles to grow. These dominant species can cause special chalk grassland plants - including harebell, vervain and rock rose - to die out.

Grazing with sheep removes these nutrients, which helps to maintain the grassland conditions which are perfect for wildflowers.

Sheep have incredibly mobile mouths! This means they can nibble the grass so it is cropped close to the ground. Sheep will take woody vegetation and access areas where machinery cannot. They are also far less likely to create bare ground due to their limited weight.

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Guidance for walking near livestock

Please read our FAQ page to learn how to safely walk near livestock on our sites.

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Belted Galloway Cattle

© Jon Hawkins

The next generation of vets

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s farming activities have created the opportunity for a new partnership with the University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine.

 The Trust provided sheep and non-breeding cows from our grazing herd for students to work with, along with a small group of horses. They are involved in everything from basic animal handling skills for first years to motion capture technology used by PhD students to investigate equine locomotion. Students also visit the Trust’s home farm at Wisley to improve animal handling and husbandry skills.

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