Hundreds of years ago, Kent was covered by mixed woodland. Then man began to make clearings for farming and grazing animals kept the regrowth of shrubs and trees at bay. This allowed other species which prefer more open spaces to thrive. Rich and diverse wildlife communities developed on this habitat and this man-made landscape evolved into the chalk grassland we now cherish.
Unfortunately, man's continued pressure on the land has had a detrimental effect over more recent decades. Over- and under-grazing, building development and use of chemicals have had a detrimental effect on the wildlife depending on this land for survival. Conservation grazing is a sustainable and natural way to maintain chalk grassland, and other threatened habitats, for what have become increasingly rare, species of plants and animals, birds and insects.
Carefully developed management plans are essential to ensure the right balance of the chosen grazing maintains or restores the habitat. Grazing is a gentler way to maintain the balance, causing less disruption to wildlife than mechanical cutting or burning. As the livestock moves around the site they can reach areas difficult for machinery to access. The less-mobile species are safer from harm when grazing is employed as a method of land management.
The way the animals graze a pasture allows less competitive species to establish, as the more dominant plants are chosen to eat. Wandering the fields, the combination of the animals eating, trampling, lying on and crushing the land, along with the dung left behind, leaves a patchwork of micro-habitats.
This mix of different lengths of grass provides ideal areas for ground-nesting birds like skylarks. Bare patches become nurseries for seedlings and warm patches are loved by reptiles and invertebrates. Lower density grazing numbers are healthier for the livestock as well as the soil – the lower requirement for chemical control of parasites means dung piles provide homes for hundreds of types of insect, which in turn feed animals such as birds, bats and badgers.
A wide variety of animals may be used for grazing, including cattle, sheep, goats, ponies, deer and even water buffalo. Unusual and rare breeds are often used as the different beasts, and breeds within this, have particular eating habits, preferences in plants and suitability to different terrains. Different places will also benefit from grazing in certain seasons, according to which wild plants are being encouraged.
The resulting biodiversity provides us all with a spectacular landscape to get out into and enjoy. Kent's wealth of public footpaths encourages walkers to roam these fields. Our health and wellbeing benefit greatly from these healthy habitats just as surely as that of the wildlife within them. So, it is our duty to play our part in caring for this land.
Many of us will have a favourite place to walk or cycle, so to ensure we continue to enjoy this pleasure we must act responsibly in our countryside. Increasingly, landowners cannot graze as they wish because of the danger to them from visitors to their land. The threat of attack by dogs (and people), dog faeces polluting the land and passing disease to grazers, fly-tipping, misuse of trails by cyclists and off-roaders all limit how vulnerable land is managed.
Because of this, Nature suffers. Not everyone can volunteer to help the many local conservation groups, but we can all help in the protection of our favourite walks. Act responsibly, encourage others to do the same and make this a topic of conversation, so others might learn about this issue too.