Emma Lusby, Senior Press Officer at Natural England, told the Ecologist that some conservationists prefer not to make a distinction between environments termed "wilderness" and those called "natural". 'We’d not really use these terms to differentiate between areas, when talking about habitats and the wider environment,' she said. 'All our landscapes are managed to some degree – to produce food, as parks and gardens, for development and drainage for example.'
She noted that the only truly ‘natural’ environments in the UK are the rare remnants of Caledonian pine forest. Even these often need some degree of management in the form of ensuring non-intervention.
Fiona Whitfield, Conservation Officer at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT), drew similar conclusions. 'There are no wildernesses left in England,' she told the Ecologist. 'Management is required to "maintain" many English landscapes.'
'LWT and other conservation organisations tend to manage habitats as part of wider landscapes – all habitats require management otherwise succession to woodland would occur. This would be fine if there was enough room for a habitat to succeed and another be replaced due to natural processes such as fire, wind blow and so on, but humans have now taken up so much room for housing, infrastructure and agriculture that natural processes cannot take place.'
Nature reserves are now managed to maintain and protect special, rare habitats like heath, dunes grassland, woodland, ponds and wetland, mosslands, and thus ensure the survival of the rare species that depend on them.
Such environments were often once profitable producers, grazed by cows or sheep, for example, with the ecological benefits a secondary benefit, often not considered at all. England’s changing economy means that such management is increasingly the responsibility of conservation organisations. Conscious of the inherent contradiction of using high carbon management that can worsen other environmental issues, organisations have taken inspiration from traditional methods, termed "naturalistic" by conservationists.
'Often using cattle, horses, or sheep is less invasive, than machinery, probably cheaper, quieter, more sustainable, and is also better for the soil as they don’t compact the ground like diggers' explained Lusby. 'Animals can also reach the parts that machinery cannot go and their style of gentle grazing and moving around benefits the plants.'
This low impact approach has become Natural England’s ethos, she added. 'We’ll always use or advise on using the most appropriate regime to protect, restore and/or enhance a particular habitat, and within the given circumstances. This comes from trials elsewhere, the best available knowledge and evidence; there’s lots of sharing of info.'
The LWT has also recognised the benefits, using a mix of animals for grazing depending on the type of habitat. 'LWT has recently bought its own flock of Hebredian sheep and is now breeding from them, has a herd of Longhorn Cattle on loan and has employed a full time Conservation Grazing Apprentice,' Whitfield said. 'LWTs commitment is to sustainably manage its reserves and it is working on ways to manage its own flock on its own reserves and beyond in perpetuity.'
Sian Parry has been working on the LWT grazing project since April this year, when she was taken on via a Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) trainee-ship scheme. Parry explained that different animals are used for different habitats, for example sheep on dune heathland, but Longhorn Cattle on wetland sites. 'As well as habitat, the objectives for the site have to be considered so we don’t necessarily do year round grazing on sites,' she explained, adding that careful consideration is needed before reserves are grazed. 'The LWT are always considering whether it is appropriate to put animals into an area.'
Grazing is becoming a fairly popular approach within conservation, Parry said. 'It is a more natural method of scrub control – the browsing habits of the livestock can create tussocks which then become suitable for all different wildlife and generally helps to increase the diversity of area.'
The benefits of are clear from a hay meadow on Freshfield Dune Heath, owned and managed by the LWT. Since 2005 the number of plant species has increased from 39 in 2005 to 76 in 2011. Vascular plant numbers have increased from 76 in 2005, to 281 in 2011. 'This benefits the environment by allowing plants a place to thrive with the knock-on effect of increased numbers of invertebrates – over the whole site in 2005, 500 invertebrate species were recorded increasing to 890 in 2011. This then has a knock on effect for birds, mammals and reptiles,' said Whitfield.
She cited as an example increasing sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) leading to an increased population of small copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas).
Depending on finance and infrastructure, there is huge potential for using grazing in all sorts of environments, Whitfield argued, from common land in the south of England to the Welsh mountains, where a mix of goats and sheep graze inaccessible areas. The alternatives to grazing are removing invasive species by hand – not feasible given conservation’s manpower constraints – or to use machinery.
Nevertheless, Whitfield stressed that grazing must not be seen as a silver bullet, suitable for all sites. 'Every management technique has its pros and cons, and most habitats benefit from a mixture,' she said. 'The benefit of using animals as a management tool is that they do the job slowly over time, living with and being a part of the landscape. They give a different structure to a habitat and do not cause a devastating effect, which many mechanical means do. Animals do have their limitations and do not necessarily do the exact job needed by overgrazing, by undergrazing, by not eating a target species or by eating a desired species.'
However, the machine-associated expenses of fuel and depreciation are not applicable with animals, she pointed out. 'A benefit to using animals is they can help offset some of their own costs either through breeding and selling live animals or meat.'
And benefits are not confined to the economic and ecological: 'Animals change the dynamic of a landscape just by being there – being a point of interest for human visitors,' Whitfield said.
These less tangible considerations were key in the decision to use animal power to redeem perhaps the most vilified form of management – logging. Logging has for decades been the prime enemy of conservationists across the world. Images of timber extraction have become synonymous with environmental degradation and destruction. But some species, at least in the UK, require environments shaped by tree cutting.
The 492-ha Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, a large sand dune system which stretches approximately 20km from just north of Liverpool up to Southport, is one such area.
Dave Mercer, Natural England’s Senior Reserve Manager for the Ainsdale Sand Dunes and the Ribble Estuary NNRs, explained that the area, which has Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status, is home to the most northerly colony of sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) in the UK, to 40 per cent of the UK’s natterjack toads (Epidalea calamita), and has specialities like dune tiger beetles (Cicindela maritima).
While the open dunes are managed with sheep and cattle grazing, approximately 170 ha is Corsican pine (Pinus nigra) woodland now colonised by endangered red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) and managed for them. But approximately 2.5 ha of the woodland is broadleaf and naturally occurring alder woodland in one of the dune slacks. Mercer said that trees have to be felled to ensure the continuance of the alder coppice habitat, rare in a coastal area. Alder coppice is associated with bramble flowers, which in turn attract the dark green fritillary butterfly (Argynnis aglaja) and the vernal mining bee (Colletes cunicularis ssp. Celticus), a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Priority Species.
Despite the necessity of tree cutting in the area, Mercer said that such management can be a public relations problem. 'When there’s a large urban population near a woodland area, there’s not always a clear understanding why trees are being cut down,' he said. Objectives such as thinning to lessen the incidence of needle blight and to promote the regeneration needed for transient habitats for ground flora and invertebrates are easily understood by conservationists but are not immediately obvious to the general public. 'Nobody likes to see a big automated extractor while walking in the woods,' Mercer added.
The solution was obvious, at least to Mercer, who has long taken an interest in sustainable forestry. 'I had seen horses working in the Lake District and in Keilder Forest, and had been to demonstrations over the years. I realised that horse-logging could be an ideal solution to our PR issues.'
Painter, a Cyldesdale cross pony, now hauls logs out of the woods, the continuation of an ancient symbiosis of man and beast. But the project is far from primitive. Mark Turnbull, one of the horse logging contractors registered at the British Horse Loggers, the industry’s national body, explained that his tools range from a simple log chain dragged behind the horse, to a custom 8-wheeled, Swedish-built timber buggy with flotation tyres.
'The chain has been around thousands and thousands of years and that’s how they pull out logs with elephants. But there’s a limit to what you can drag out in a day and you do cause a bit of surface damage,' he said. When using the buggy, on the other hand, 'you can hardly see where it’s been', Turnbull added, although its usage is limited by the terrain. Both are used on the site, he said, chains pulling the timber to more accessible areas, where it is loaded onto the buggy.
Horse logging is about far more than just public relations, however. The coppice site is surrounded by sand dunes so the topography is very steep. Access for large machinery is thus very difficult. At 15.2 hands high, Painter is sure-footed, able to extract timber effectively and safely through standing trees without causing any damage to trees, without compacting the soil and damaging roots, or otherwise disturbing the flora and fauna.
Conservationist groups are currently the main demand for horse logging, but these methods are gaining traction as a viable and sustainable industry for the 21st century. 'We’re getting more and more recognised,' said Turnbull. 'It’s never gone away but now more landowners and estates are using our services.' He added that a better work ethic has meant that perceptions of horse loggers as inefficient are changing. 'If we’re going to do a job, we don’t mess about – we get stuck in and do a good day’s work. It seems to be working – we are enjoying a resurgence.'
Horse logging can appear to be expensive, superficially: Highly skilled and complex work, it demands a premium. But take into account the greater finesse, lower impact, and lessened reliance upon expensive infrastructure such as roads, and the cost equation evens out. As fossil fuels grow more expensive, horses will be ever more cost effective.
The rising price of timber is another factor, Turnbull said, the price of the extracted wood significantly offsetting management costs. Even lower value coppice produce can be in demand in a specialist market, for example birch shavings used in pot-pourri.
Turnbull is upbeat about the future of horse logging. 'We’ve got Prince Charles on board now and he’s playing a very active role as patron,' he said, adding that his own 19-year-old son has decided to join the business. 'The future’s rosy.'
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