The first ‘super nature reserve’ in Britain is taking shape – creating a ‘savannah’ where animals can wander and ‘mimic their wild ancestors’. The huge area of Purbeck Heaths in Dorset is intended to ‘turn back the clock thousands of years’ to a place where cattle, pigs and ponies can roam.
They will graze like extinct species to help wildlife such as sand lizard, southern damselfly and heath tiger beetle to thrive in precious heathland landscape. The site was declared a nature reserve in December 2020 after the trust managed to finally ‘knit together’ the vast area.
The 3,400 hectare wetlands in Dorset was once home to a 1,370 hectare savannah – where now extinct ancient cattle called ‘aurochs’ roamed freely several millennia ago. Without the ancient beasts though, they’ve instead turned to cattle, pigs and ponies to help restore the area.
David Brown, National Trust lead ecologist for Purbeck, says the animals’ grazing habits are invaluable in making new habitats for small reptiles, insects and other wildlife. He said: “Over large swathes of open grassland and heath, these domestic grazers are now mimicking their wild ancestors, who would have shaped habitats in the past.
“We can’t bring back aurochs, the native ancestors of our domestic cattle, but we can use our 200 Red Devon cattle to graze and behave in equivalent ways. Similarly, Exmoor ponies mimic the actions of now-extinct tarpan horses, and the quirky, curly coated Mangalitsa pigs are rooting around like wild boars.
“We’re also discovering that by letting them get on with their own thing as much as possible, our grazing animals explore new habitats and discover different types of vegetation to eat – all of which help create a more dynamic and complex ecosystem.”
In a natural environment, large herbivores also play a crucial role in helping plants and less mobile insect species move around the landscape – carrying seeds and larvae on their fur and hooves, or in their dung. By giving cattle, ponies and pigs this huge landscape to wander around, they are helping rare and threatened species such as Purbeck mason wasps and heath bee-flies disperse and build stronger populations.
David continued: “Grazing in their own individual ways, these animals are slowly forming diverse, wildlife friendly habitats. Cattle are untidy eaters, leaving messy tussocks perfect for insects; pigs turn over the soil and help sand lizards burrow; and ponies nibble tightly down to the ground creating grassland lawns full of specialist flowers such as storksbill and waxcap fungi.
“These grasslands can be really important for pollinating insects too, including rare mining bees. It’s the perfect mix of habitats in which biodiversity can thrive, and a great landscape for people to also roam freely.”
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The work of the trust in the area is already showing results, and boosting tourism. In 2022, Studland Heath saw the highest numbers of silver-studded blue butterflies recorded in 45 years of monitoring.
Last year, ospreys were also bred on the edge of the NNR for the first time in 200 years. The UK’s largest native bird, the white-tailed eagle, is also now regularly seen flying over the reserve, following its introduction to the Isle of Wight.
Peter Robertson, RSPB Senior Site Manager, said: “Creating a wilder grazing system is a long-term project to enrich this landscape for nature. It’s early days but we are already seeing some surprising changes. We expected that the pigs would turn over the ground in areas of grassland and woodland to create bare ground for invertebrates and reptiles to feed and nest and to create space for plants to germinate, and we have certainly seen this happening.
“What has come as more of a surprise is how they have created new ponds by wallowing in water-logged areas and have opened up areas of saltmarsh by foraging for shellfish. We are using remote sensing to monitor these changes to allow us to adapt our management and to inform other projects and partners who are interested in adopting the same approach.”
The site will also be the base for the BBC’s forthcoming series of Springwatch with the first live show on Monday, May 29 – allowing viewers to enjoy this spectacular landscape from their sofas and find out more about the wildlife that lives there.
Ian Alexander, Natural England Senior Advisor for Wessex, said: “It isn’t just the wildlife of this area that is special but also the very close collaboration between multiple conservation bodies and our private sector partners who supply and care for the animals. This close partnership working is what has enabled us to deliver such striking conservation results.”
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