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Heathland and grassland management

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Heathland and grassland are open habitats probably derived in Britain from clearings made in the Wildwood by grazing animals. For many centuries human farming has replaced these wild animals with domestic stock grazing (to make pasture) or mowing (to make meadow).

Early spider orchidEnclosed fields which have been managed in this way for centuries often support very diverse vegetation, with as many as forty flowering plant species in a square metre (for example this early spider orchid Ophrys sphegodes, which grows on chalk grassland). Whether usually managed as pasture or meadow, enclosed fields have generally been mown from time to time and so tend to be fairly uniform and grassy. Unenclosed pasture land, which has traditionally been grazed at lower intensities, is more varied and rougher in character, often with scattered scrub and trees. Depending upon the soil and exact history unenclosed pasture may support rough grassland, fen or (on acidic soils) heathland, moorland or bog.

Cattle grazing heathlandWhat all these traditional open habitats have in common is that they depend upon a very low nutrient status and some form of management to prevent the spread of scrub and trees over the whole area.

The kinds of domestic stock which were bred to graze these habitats are relatively slow-growing and thrifty, capable of doing well on limited quantities of low-grade keep. On modern intensively-farmed land these breeds have been replaced by faster-growing but less hardy kinds. The cattle in this picture (taken on the New Forest) are Galloways, one of the traditional rough-grazing cattle breeds.

Richard Collingridge

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