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Highland cattle are grazing a trail for wildlife at Whitwell Common

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 August 2017 | UPDATED: 09:38 13 August 2017

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill.

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill.

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The arrival of Highland cattle on a little-known Norfolk nature reserve marks the culmination of a conservation ambition which began more than 20 years ago.

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Pictured: members of the Whitwell Common Trustees are joined by local parishioners to celebrate. Picture: Chris Hill. Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Pictured: members of the Whitwell Common Trustees are joined by local parishioners to celebrate. Picture: Chris Hill.

Ambling off a livestock trailer onto lush, inviting grass, these Highland cows certainly seem happy enough with their new home.

But they’re blissfully unaware of the importance of their role – or the decades of effort which have led to this moment.

The two animals are grazing on Whitwell Common, near Reepham, as part of a partnership project aimed at conserving the special characteristics of this valley mire, which supports a host of rare orchids and plants.

Despite their size, the hardy Highlanders are light on their feet and not fussy about their diet, which makes them perfect for clearing the scrub which threatens to encroach onto the open fen, without destroying the ground which blooms into all kinds of colourful rarities in the summer.

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill. Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill.

But there were many obstacles to clear before the cattle could carry out this valuable work.

As most of this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is registered as an ownerless common, it falls to Norfolk County Council to advise on its management as part of a small committee including the Whitwell Common Trustees group and Natural England.

To build the necessary fencing on common land, special approval was needed from the environment secretary – a lengthy process that involved a formal consultation process as well as discussions with local people and the Open Spaces Society.

Once this was secured, the project team could apply for a £25,000 Biffa Award grant, funded under the landfill tax credit scheme, to pay for 1.2km of fencing to enclose five hectares of the 20ha common, install gates for public access, and dig out the existing ditch system to help control water levels.

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Pictured: Ecologist Ed Stocker, who manages the reserve. Picture: Chris Hill. Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Pictured: Ecologist Ed Stocker, who manages the reserve. Picture: Chris Hill.

All this work needed to be overseen and approved by Natural England officer Nik Bertholdt, who is responsible for the condition of the SSSI.

The arrival of the cattle marked the culmination of this effort – and the final realisation of an ambition which dates back more than 20 years.

“It is really emotional, actually,” said Lin Garland, chair of the Whitwell Common Trustees.

“A few of us have been involved in this for a long time, so to finally see the cows out here is fantastic. It is the culmination of so much hard work by so many people, and it is going to really enhance the site.”

Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill. Highland cattle have been released onto Whitwell Common, as their grazing will help preserve the fen's rare plant life. Picture: Chris Hill.

Norfolk County Council ecologist Ed Stocker oversees the management of the reserve, funded by a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme from Natural England.

He said: “I am a great advocate of grazing as a management tool on nature reserves. Highland cattle are particularly well suited to grazing on nature reserves as they will tackle the woodier plant species that often cause management problems such as birch, bramble and even gorse.

“At Whitwell Common it is the dense fen vegetation – willow herb, meadowsweet, young reed mace and grasses – and encroachment of willow and alder that we are hoping the cattle will help control.

“The hope is that by grazing the main area of the common at the right time of year and at a suitable density of livestock, the future funding for the site will cover the mechanical mowing of the vegetation while the cattle keep the young re-growth in check.

Bog pimpernel on Whitwell Common. Picture: Ed Stocker. Bog pimpernel on Whitwell Common. Picture: Ed Stocker.

“It is important at this site to be removing all the vegetation we cut to reduce the nutrients from rotting vegetation feeding back into the soil and causing further vigorous growth of the dense, dominant plants that out-compete the more delicate orchids and bog plants such as bog pimpernel, marsh helleborine and adder’s tongue.”

The animals are owned by grazier Stephen Yarham from Hindolveston, part of a pedigree conservation herd of 15 Highland cattle.

“They will take whatever needs to be taken out and will deal with the rough,” he said. “These are hardy cows so they will deal with this grazing with very little management. And they are very light on their feet, so they don’t destroy everything underfoot.”

The cattle will be on the common until late autumn, and can be seen by public visitors who use the reserve’s circular path.

Fragrant orchid on Whitwell Common. Picture: Ed Stocker. Fragrant orchid on Whitwell Common. Picture: Ed Stocker.

ABOUT WHITWELL COMMON

Whitwell Common SSSI is a spring-fed valley fen alongside a tributary of the River Wensum, about two miles outside Reepham. It represents one of the last remaining fragments of this classic Norfolk river valley habitat.

The majority of the site is registered as ownerless. Until the 1930s, the exercising of grazing rights and the employment of a “hayward” on the site maintained a large area as open fen, which supports a rich mix of plant species found in only a handful of other sites in the county.

But the end of these traditional practices has led to the encroachment by scrub and trees.

The site’s recent management means species of orchid including pyramidal and fragrant flourish here, together with the tiny bog pimpernel, ragged robin, adder’s tongue, bog bean and grass of parnassus. Marsh marigold and meadowsweet are a common sight.

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