Our four-legged workforce plays a vital role in the conservation of a whole range of species including birds, insects and flowers.

Across Berks, Bucks and Oxon livestock graze more than 1,300 hectares of our nature reserve, in Bucks this is around 300 hectares. A third of the total is by BBOWT’s own livestock and the remaining land is grazed by animals belonging to graziers.

In Bucks, cattle and sheep graze chalk grassland in autumn and winter, and hay meadows after the summer hay cut.

Chalk grassland and hay meadows exist because of traditional grazing and farming techniques.

Without grazing the coarse grasses would start to dominate these habitats, followed by woody plants and, if left long enough, grassland would eventually become woodland.

BBOWT uses native breeds on our reserves – Dexter cattle and Hebridean and Beulah speckled face sheep.

These are selected for their hardiness and are able stay out on reserves all year, in all weathers. They are also good for grazing areas of scrub and ‘poor’ grassland.

Hebridean sheep graze a meadow at Dancersend nature reserve

The Trust uses a mix of livestock as different animals graze in a different way.

Sheep nibble grass resulting in short vegetation and they help maintain grassland that contains a wide variety of species.

Cattle tear off hunks of grass which creates a ‘tussocky’ habitat, ideal for a range of invertebrates and ground nesting birds such as lapwing and snipe.

When we restore chalk grassland and wildflower meadows that have become overgrown, volunteers and staff first remove scrub or saplings. Livestock continue the work, grazing to remove the coarser grasses and slowing the re-growth of scrub.

This all helps wild flowers such as orchids to bloom and encourages the variety of insects associated with them.

A sheep eats around 5kg of vegetation a day and cattle around 35kg a day each. Over the course of a year the livestock remove more than 1,200 tonnes of vegetation from our reserves.

This saves a lot of work by machinery, which is expensive and not environmentally-friendly, and by volunteers, who can get on with other tasks. It also means the vegetation is managed continuously while the animals are on site, rather than in bursts when volunteers or machinery can be on site.

There’s another benefit of cattle too - astonishingly around 200 species of insect may live in a cow pat, some of which make great food for bats!

BBOWT can only use as many animals as we do thanks to the legion of loyal stock watchers who help the Trust’s livestock to stay happy and healthy over the winter. Many volunteers give their time each week to check the animals.

Next time you see livestock on a reserve, or swathes of beautiful wild flowers in spring and summer, remember this is thanks to a return to a centuries old way of managing habitats, which BBOWT is continuing for the benefit of our local wildlife.

Find out more about becoming a stock watcher by contacting College Lake on 01442 826774 or collegelake@bbowt.org.uk.