What is it?
Conservation grazing does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the conscientious use of grazing to aid the development of biodiversity and improve the management of a variety of habitats throughout the United Kingdom.
What does it do?
It is common for people to try to find grazing that is right for their flock, and many will search out expanses of lush grass with shelter which will enable stock to be brought on quickly with as little land as possible being left to waste. What about boggy areas, or areas heavy with trees and bushes? What about moorland and heathland which has a whole different ecosystem to your average field? These areas need to be grazed too, and it is only by sensible grazing regimes that they retain the natural biodiversity. Perfect examples of this are the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies found on their respective pieces of moorland; these animals can survive on bracken and other scrub-type plants which would not be suitable to sustain less hardy animals. Cattle are also used in areas that need less grazing control. Due to the way they eat (wrapping their tongues around grass as opposed to nibbling at it) they are prone to leaving areas of grass which sheep or ponies would have otherwise taken down to ground level. This leaves areas for other animals to graze and also provides cover for smaller creatures.
Why are sheep used?
Sheep have a few benefits over ponies and cattle, the first being their size. Areas of scrubland which are populated by overgrowth provide a challenge for animals of larger stature as they are unable to weave between trunks and bushes to find areas of new grazing. Sheep have no problem with this and can also negotiate boggy and wet areas that would be subjected to churning and
damage by other livestock. However, they are not the perfect conservation grazer. Their penchant for flowers and new growth means that they can decimate areas which can result in a drop in diversity as well habitat and food for other creatures. This is an example of why management of conservation grazing is so important; stock is brought on to benefit the land and should not be permitted to over-graze.
Image of Shetland sheep from hertswildlifetrust.org.uk
Which sheep are used?
Technically any sheep could be used for conservation grazing. The Grazing Animals Project (GAP) has separated a selection of breeds into four categories; primitive, hill, upland and lowland. The characteristics of each breed enable those interested in grazing (or needing grazing) to select the right breed, or type for them. It would be pointless to put a lowland breed in the wilds of Scotland as they are simply not hardy enough and require more fertile surroundings in order to survive.