Cattle grids allow herd to graze on East Devon heathland

Grazing cattle have been reintroduced to large parts of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths to help manage the unique environment more sustainably.

Forty iconic Red Ruby Devons are among the animals now grazing at Hawkerland Common, joining around 80 beef cattle and ponies already at home elsewhere on the heaths. New cattle grids have been constructed to help manage the cattle while keeping the need for additional fencing to a minimum.

The Pebbledbed Heaths provide a home for thousands of species, many of them very rare, and it is important that this internationally recognised landscape is actively managed to ensure its survival. Livestock grazing is an essential component of managing the heaths which reduces the need for intensive management, supports local farmers in the production of high-quality beef, and minimises waste.

The area is managed by the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, and its operations manager Paul Swain said: “Wandering cattle is reminiscent of an old-fashioned, traditional era of land management, but it’s the most effective way of managing an open landscape like the Pebblebed Heaths where there is a lot of gorse and heather. This type of terrain is suited to hardy breeds of cattle such as the Red Ruby which is adapted to grazing rougher vegetation.

“Grazing on heathland such as this helps to create a mosaic of micro-habitats with small areas of short vegetation and open ground which support a wide variety of insects and other animals. It also suppresses scrub and bracken. Because the cattle graze gradually and continually, there are also benefits in mitigating the effects of atmospheric nitrogen and phosphorus deposition.”

The majority of Devon’s cattle grids are in the Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks, with others in rural areas to facilitate livestock grazing. The installation of two cattle grids at Hawkerland, near Newton Poppleford, means the animals can make use of the entire 80-hectare section of common, which is dissected by a narrow road, expanding their grazing zone.

Despite being costlier than fencing, cattle grids are far more long-lasting, and landowner Clinton Devon Estates was keen to allow the animals more room to roam as well as to preserve the heathland’s open aesthetic.

Livestock has grazed sections of the Pebblebed Heaths since the 1990s. Around five years ago they were moved from Hawkerland Common because temporary electric fences proved too costly to maintain.

Following a consultation process in 2009, planning permission for permanent fencing was approved in 2012. This work was funded by the Government’s Countryside Stewardship while the cattle grids, installed following consultation with Devon County Council, the Highways Authority, were funded by Clinton Devon Estates.

Susan and David Smith have lived along the road where the grids have been installed for more than a decade and have welcomed the return of the cattle. The couple assisted with the Trust’s consultation about where the grids should be located and say they have had the positive knock-on effect of slowing traffic down.

“It’s the most wonderful sight to see animals grazing naturally,” said Mrs Smith. “They’re helping to manage the heaths naturally rather than the land having to be managed artificially by people with machines. The cattle are doing a fantastic job!”