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Savernake Forest

Location:Savernake Forest, Nr Marlborough, Wiltshire

Habitats:Woodland

Livestock:White Park Cattle

In brief:Ancient woodland experimentally grazed with White Park cattle

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Savernake Forest in Wiltshire is an extensive area of ancient woodland with over 1000 years of documented history. It was notified in 1971 as an SSSI with rare lichens and fungi, relics of ancient wood pasture and a rich deadwood fauna. It is privately owned but managed by Forest Enterprise and the SSSI covers 905 acres.

A 30 ha enclosure has been established in the woodland. This is part of a Natural England and Forestry Enterprise pilot scheme investigating grazing in woodlands due to run for 5 years. The objectives were to open up areas that were covered with scrub, bramble and bracken allowing more light to reach the ground flora. The effect of the grazing cattle on the flora and fauna will be monitored. Seven white park cattle, belonging to a neighbouring farm, graze the area from the end of April until September. When the enclosure was fenced a corral and crush was constructed to allow the animals to be handled. The site is relatively high and windy so there has been little trouble with flies.

The area is small enough to enable stock to be checked daily and a team of trained ‘lookers’ has been established. Most lookers have had experience of animals and all have been on specific training courses. The basic team consists of 7 lookers all doing one day a week each, and there are some ‘spares’ to cover illness and holidays. After each visit the looker leaves information on the location and condition of the stock in a book for the next looker. The lookers gradually become familiar with the daily pattern of animal movements and time spent looking for the stock is reduced. A larger area would take longer to search and may need to be broken down into paddocks.

The white park cattle are docile and have not become feral. They eat coarse grass, browse and even leaves off the ground. The only potentially toxic plants are yew and buttercups neither of which have been eaten, and acorns which fall after the cattle have been removed from the site. The enclosure has a public right of way through it and there were worries about vandalism of the fences but this has not happened. Public relations are now good and the cattle seem popular. Beef from the main herd of cattle is sold locally at farmers markets and butchers.