Monday, 28 September 2009

Cattle grazing is back in the Stort Valley.

It is an acknowledged fact that cattle grazing is the best way to increase biodiversity in selected areas which were traditionally managed by grazing.

First there was a motley collection in Pishiobury Park several years ago.

Now there is a fine herd of Longhorn Cattle.

Then came eight British White cattle on the meadow to the east of the main Park.

Closely followed by two Water Buffaloes on the old water meadow.

The latest addition some Highland cattle which have been introduced to Sawbridgeworth Marsh. Let Andy Sapsford, the warden tell the story.

Turning the Clock Back to a New Era on the Marsh

The peatbank on Sawbridgeworth Marsh Nature Reserve has long been recognised as the most interesting part of the site botanically. It consists of M23 Blunt-flowered Rush / Marsh Thistle wet pasture on a bank of peat some 6 feet in depth. The wet, alkaline peaty soil supports a host of uncommon wetland plants, including a large stand of Southern Marsh Orchid, Early Marsh Orchid, Fen and Marsh Bedstraws, Ragged Robin and Hay Rattle. Traditionally, this part of the marsh was cattle - grazed during the summer months. Grazing ceased in about 1964 and the site was jointly purchased by the Essex Wildlife Trust and the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust in 1970.
Since becoming a nature reserve, the restoration of cattle grazing has not been possible, due both to the costs of fencing and the lack of available stock locally. The peatbank has managed through an annual cut in September, followed by burning or composting of the cut hay on site. Unfortunately, this has gradually led to the deterioration of those parts of the peatbank used for these activities, the species – rich sward being replaced by vigorous grasses, nettles and thistles as a result of the enrichment of the ground.
Various remedies have been tried in order to overcome this problem, including the use of a specially designed burner bin, mounted on legs with the resultant ash trapped in a tray beneath for safe disposal away from the peatbank. This unfortunately proved cumbersome to use.
Recently, the Essex Wildlife Trust was able to submit its landholding in the county into the Higher Level Scheme (HLS), a DEFRA scheme to promote wildlife – friendly farming. Sawbridgeworth Marsh was fortunate enough to receive a 5 year grant from this application, which will be used to fence areas of the reserve off in order to reintroduce cattle grazing once again.
Work began in earnest during August. An area of some 4 acres to the north of the entrance gate was fenced. This included the northern end of the peatbank, a section of the reedbed, which has steadily been invading the peatbank for a period of some years and the raised ground to the east of these two areas, formerly fenced off for occasional horse grazing. The work took all month and involved the removal of the old fencing, erection of sturdy new fencing (the posts being pushed into the soft ground to the depth of 4 feet by a hired digger) and the installation of a new field gate, immediately to the right of the entrance gate. Finally, the drier ground was cut and cleared by forage harvester and the wetter peatbank by BCS mower.

On Friday 25th September at noon, the lorry turned up to deliver Bess, Iona, Frederica, Isaac and Danielda, five Highland cattle, to their new home for the next two months.
The three cows and two calves have settled in straightaway and are feeding well, mostly in Round Moors, one of the fields formerly used for horse grazing. Checks are made daily, not only on the stock, but also on how they are foraging and how much poaching is occurring. At the moment, the ground is relatively dry, so poaching is not an issue. It is planned to remove them in late November and they will then return sometime next spring to continue the job!

Next year, a further two acres will be enclosed, encompassing the southern part of the peatbank and the disused grazing enclosure on the higher ground to the south of the entrance gate – an area of two acres in total. In 2011 – 12, a further 4 acres will be enclosed in the wet meadow areas within Little and Great Valet Homes.
The Trust has also purchased a mini baler, which is driven off the PTO of the BCS mower. This will enable any tidy-up cutting at the end of next summer to be achieved without the need to compost or burn the arisings, as the bales can be removed from site.
By turning the clock back and reintroducing cattle grazing to Sawbridgeworth Marsh, we are entering a new era, one in which it is hoped that, as well as saving work by not having to undertake the annual cut to the peatbank, the condition of the sward will benefit through having the cattle here.

Andrew Sapsford, Marsh Warden.