Wednesday, 20 May 2015

New lambs to nibble for nature

David Tallentire, Conservation grazing manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust

When the cold weather of winter finally breaks, nature doesn’t waste any time in responding to take advantage of the sunshine. The arrival of spring brings back an abundance of colour and life to our countryside with a myriad of birds, flowers, butterflies and all sort of our favourite wildlife. But this got me to thinking, what best signals the arrival of spring? Is it the early white blossom of the blackthorn hedges, or the frogspawn appearing in our garden ponds? For many years I have associated the arrival of spring with the distinctive whistling call of curlew returning to their summer breeding grounds, however, for me this year, it is the arrival of our first lambs of the season which has signalled that spring is here. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s flock of sheep have now started lambing and before anyone says ‘ahh’, let me make clear that these pint sized nibblers have a job to do.

NWT manages a wide range of semi-natural habitats which represent some of Norfolk’s finest nature sites. Our ‘flying flock’ was set up 20 years ago to move around our nature reserves, preventing areas which are important for wildlife becoming overgrown. This name reflects the fact that the sheep are highly mobile and are ‘flown in’ (via road rather than air!) wherever they are most needed. NWT has two shepherds, who manage the flock, checking the animals on a daily basis to ensure their welfare. A team of six working sheepdogs are on hand, enabling the shepherds to easily gather and move the sheep around our nature reserves. In any year, you can see them right across the county, grazing on the Broadland marshes, or on the coast at Holme Dunes, or across several of our Breckland heath reserves, which are the main home of our flock. By munching their way across our nature reserves, the sheep maintain open habitats, allowing a whole range of plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals to flourish. Without this regular removal of vegetation many our nature reserves would be at risk of being swamped by just a small handful of the more dominant plant species.

The flock currently numbers just under 1,000 sheep and includes Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain breeds. Despite being quite small, these are very hardy traditional breeds that are able to thrive on the nature reserves. By using native breeds NWT is also helping to secure the future of these breeds, many of which are at risk of extinction due to the influx of higher producing, more commercial breeds within UK agriculture. However, as well as their strong heritage, these animals have a number of important genetic traits, and need our protection for future generations. Our breeding program for the flock has seen NWT become one the largest owners of pedigree Shetland sheep across the whole of the UK.

Head of Nature Reserves at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, John Milton adds, ‘Amongst wildlife organisations NWT has been one of the early pioneers in introducing grazing animals including sheep, cattle and ponies throughout many sites and habitats, as a sustainable way of preventing areas from becoming choked with growth that smothers fragile species. The Flying Flock is a valuable conservation tool.’

But it’s not just their nibbling that has value; they also produce some fantastic fleeces. The Shetlands, in particular, are highly regarded for the quality of the wool that they produce.

The ewes were introduced to a few of our newly bought tups (rams) at the end of last year. The tups arrived from Hereford in October, looking very handsome as they did. They were clearly very keen to get on with their new job, as the lambs are now arriving thick and fast. Coming in a range of colours and markings, including some stand out white hairstyles; the lambs are quickly up on their feet, often giving our two shepherds the run around within hours of being born. We have had over 100 born so far this year, but plenty more are expected throughout the next month. The breeds of sheep that we keep are well adapted to lamb outdoors. The area that they lamb includes lots of shelter, plenty of food, and with minimal disturbance the ewes are free to find a secluded spot to give birth. However, our shepherds are on site as much as possible to assist the odd few ewes that run into difficulty. The new mothers and their lambs are then penned into a separate paddock to encourage a close bond, it also allows our shepherds to keep a close eye on them and make sure the lambs are getting enough milk.

The lambs will spend the summer with their mothers, predominantly grazing on the Breckland heaths and in autumn the ewe lambs will enter into the main flock and ensure that this nibbling for nature continues for years to come.

You can come and see some of these young conservationists in action this summer by visiting NWT East Wretham Heath nature reserve. Or stop by at the nearby NWT Weeting Heath visitor centre, where the flock grazing works to maintain the unique flora and fauna of the heath, including nesting areas for breeding stone curlew which can now be spotted daily from the bird hides.

Dartmoor and Konik ponies together,
photo by Lynda Simpson
Away from the flying flock, I am also involved in managing our herd of ponies which can be seen at several NWT nature reserves, such as Roydon Common near Kings Lynn.

Again, these living lawnmowers play a very important role in managing NWT nature reserves by removing yearly vegetation growth and maintaining open habitats for wildlife. A good example of this is at NWT Buxton Heath, where the year round pony grazing has seen a marked increase in the number of marsh helleborine orchids over the past few years. By maintaining an open sward, the ponies have helped this beautiful plant to flourish along with a whole range of others. The mix of Dartmoor and Konik breeds owned by NWT, being hardy animals, are well suited to thrive on a range of heathland and Broadland nature reserves. At Hickling, the long standing pony grazing has helped to maintain the fen grasslands, home to numerous iconic and rare species, such as the swallowtail butterfly and the Norfolk hawker dragonfly.

Cattle are another important part of NWT’s grazing management and we work with over 20 local farmers to conserve our nature reserves. Many of Norfolk’s important wildlife sites were actually created and maintained by traditional agricultural practices dating back centuries. By working with local graziers, we can continue to maintain these habitats through seasonal cattle grazing which resembles the historic local farming systems.

With over 6,000 acres of grazed nature reserve across the length and breadth of the county, our team of grazing animals is an essential conservation tool for NWT. It is highly rewarding to see the lambs following in the footsteps of their parents, grazing across our suite of nature reserves and helping to protect Norfolk’s wildlife in the process, the ‘ahh’ factor this spring is just an added bonus.

Please support our Grazing appeal, to continue and develop NWT's conservation grazing

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