Wicken Fen Vision - National Trust

The National Trust launched its exciting and ambitious Wicken Fen Vision in 1999. The. Vision aims, over 100 years, to extend the reserve fifteen-fold by taking in land to the south and east of Wicken. This will provide a landscape-scale outdoor living space for both wildlife and people, meeting with the aspirations of the ...
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Wicken Fen Vision The Grazing Programme explained

grazing in the wild


What is the Wicken Fen Vision and why do we need it? The National Trust launched its exciting and ambitious Wicken Fen Vision in 1999. The Vision aims, over 100 years, to extend the reserve fifteen-fold by taking in land to the south and east of Wicken. This will provide a landscape-scale outdoor living space for both wildlife and people, meeting with the aspirations of the founders of the National Trust more than a century ago. The National Trust’s core purpose of ‘looking after special places, for ever, for everyone’ makes us ideally placed to help deliver this longterm Vision, both now and far into the future. From the experience gained over many years of careful management and scientific research, it has become clear that it is impossible to protect every species, no matter how great the resources used, because this wetland nature reserve was just too small and too isolated. Thus the concept of extending the reserve was conceived. Since the launch of the Vision in 1999 the reserve has continued to expand in size. The various parcels of land are at different stages in the long process of restoration to nature reserve habitats. Our habitat restoration is planned over a large area and long timescale and we have been developing a more naturally sustainable approach to this management. We wish to avoid highly prescriptive, intensive and costly management, and we expect our approach to be more flexible and adaptable in the face of environmental change. Our restoration approach allows for the natural regeneration of plants, sometimes supplemented by some seeding with appropriate grasses, reduces the loss of water through the field drains and ditches, and also depends on the introduction of grazing animals. The grazing animals are a key part of the restoration and ongoing management, and this brochure explains in more detail what we do and why.

Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve Wicken Fen was the very first nature reserve to be owned by The National Trust and has been in our care since 1899. It is one of the most important wetlands in Europe and is an iconic ecological asset, supporting thousands of species of plants, fungi and animals. The core of the reserve has every level of designation for wildlife conservation and is one of the very best examples of a classic un-drained fen, full of very rare species.


grazing… naturally


Why do we manage the Wicken Fen Vision land with grazing animals?

What is conservation grazing and why do we want to use this on the Wicken Fen Vision lands?

Grazing animals are essential to influence the developing vegetation in this fen landscape. Some trees and shrubs may grow, but the grazers keep the landscape open and help the wetland and grassland plants to become established. Grazing animals, through their feeding and foraging behaviour, create different amounts of grazing pressure on different places and on different plants across the restoration land. Various grazing species, such as cattle, sheep, horses and deer all use the vegetation differently. This develops into subtly different habitats in the landscape, and these may change between seasons and years as the restoration proceeds.

Traditional farm grazing normally takes place from spring through to autumn, with animals brought indoors for the winter. The animals are moved between fields to ensure even grazing pressure. In the early stages of restoration, traditional farm grazing methods can be used. However, as the restoration develops, we introduce grazing animals that are adapted to live on the land all year around, and that can range over very large areas. We feel that this is a more naturalistic grazing system, with the animals able to choose where to go, and what to feed on, which allows them to display more natural behaviour.

Where do we use conservation grazing and how we wish to expand this approach. Free-ranging grazing began in the area called Adventurers’ Fen, between Wicken and Burwell Lodes. This grazing compartment covers over 100 hectares, with the animals allowed to roam wherever they wish. We hope to expand this conservation grazing by connecting areas when they are large enough, typically over 100 hectares and with good vegetation development.

Why select Highland Cattle and Konik Ponies? The cattle and ponies are the preferred species as, in combination, they offer us the diverse grazing characteristics we are looking for. The hardiness of the Konik Ponies and Highland Cattle means they are more than capable of withstanding the rigours of a life on the fen throughout the year and thrive on the available forage.

In addition, this will allow the wildlife habitats to develop where the water, soil and grazing animals determine, rather than where we try to prescribe, and thus produce a more naturally dynamic suite of habitats across the Vision land. We feel this approach is more appropriate to an area that has been greatly modified by humans over the years. It is effectively a ‘blank canvas’ for habitat restoration and might be more resilient to environmental and seasonal changes in the future.

Because of the self-reliance and natural free-roaming of these breeds we are able, with the help of our veterinary advisor, to set up a more relaxed system for our herd management. These breeds also have temperaments well suited to the presence of people although they can happily live with minimal human intervention. The lack of human intrusion in their lives encourages members of the herds to determine where they go, what they do, who they want to be with and what they eat. This has given us the makings of as natural a herd of large grazers as it is possible to get in lowland Britain.

...because they are ruminants, cattle need to rest (chew the cud) for 18 hours a day. Conversely, horses need to feed for 18 hours a day.


grazing… together

Konik pony The Konik Polski is a very hardy, primitive looking breed originating from Eastern Europe. It is well-adapted to and thrives in wetland habitats and has been used successfully to help manage nature reserves right across Europe. They have a stolid nature and even temperament, even when left unhandled, so they make the perfect breed for an extensive grazing programme such as this. The Koniks came from a nature reserve in the Netherlands with a very similar management system to that of Wicken Fen. 6

Highland cattle These cattle originate from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and due to the challenging environments there, they have developed into a very tough and robust breed. Both males and females have impressive horns, but they are also well known for their placid nature, again perfect for the sort of animal we need at Wicken Fen. Our Highland Cattle came from a similar free-range system on the Isle of Mull, so they quickly settled in at Wicken.

The hardiness of the Konik Ponies and the Highland Cattle makes them the perfect breeds for wetland conditions. 7

How will the grazing animals influence their environment? The classic Wicken Fen nature reserve requires regular management, of cutting the sedge, litter and reed, and ditch clearance, in order to conserve its special habitats and species. On the Wicken Vision land, there is a great opportunity to introduce more ‘natural’ methods of large-scale habitat restoration and conservation management and to be more relaxed about the outcome. There is no fixed end point to the restoration of this landscape, no single goal, only to have a large area of land more in tune with natural processes, for wildlife and people for the long term. The effects the free-ranging grazing animals have on the developing vegetation will vary according to their density and feeding behaviour. Some areas will be grazed more heavily as the animals choose to feed there, whilst other patches may escape and the vegetation will grow taller. The grazing animals can breed and increase their numbers, so grazing pressure will slowly increase. Then as new areas of land are introduced to the reserve, the density of animals and their impacts will be reduced. Along with these fluctuations in grazing patterns, other factors will influence and shape the developing habitats including the hydrology, soil characteristics, seasonal variations in weather patterns and the natural regeneration of the various plant species. In addition to grazing, these large animals create other habitats such as well trodden paths through areas of long grass, dusty hollows where they roll, water-filled hoof prints and piles of dung. The animals act as catalysts to introducing new types of flora and fauna to the fen. We are monitoring the development of habitats and range of species across the Vision land so we can see how the restoration is progressing. 8

Over 2,600 viable seeds belonging to 18 plant families germinated from horse dung samples collected once a month for a calendar year on Wicken Fen!



Grazing characteristics Horses are selective grazers, preferring to target nutritionally rich soft, sweet grasses. Once the seasonal availability of these grasses declines, horses will graze tougher plant species such as sedges, rushes and scrub. The hardy Konik will also browse on brambles, thistles, docks and nettles. Horses have a single stomach so to extract sufficient nutrition they have to eat large quantities of forage to compensate. By contrast, cattle have a more efficient digestive system that is able to break down tough fibrous vegetation very effectively, so they do not need to eat such large quantities of forage as horses in order to survive. They ‘ruminate’ or chew the cud, to break down their food even further so their gut microbes extract even more nutrients. Horses tend to snip off selected plants with their incisors. In extensive grazing systems where there is plenty to forage they create a mosaic of short-cropped ‘lawns’ mixed with areas of taller vegetation. Using their very versatile upper lip, they can select and browse on woody seedlings, bark and the growing tips of trees and shrubs, precisely the sort of vegetation growing at Wicken Fen.

A one-day survey found 120 beetle species associated with the dung, some being very abundant, with dozens of specimens in each dung pile.

Cattle are not able to graze as selectively as horses. They graze largely by pulling, or tearing, vegetation with their tongue leaving the landscape with a more “tussocky” appearance. Occasionally they will browse, removing twigs and leaves, making a big impact on small trees and scrub. Cattle and horses will not graze close to their own dung piles in single species grazing units resulting in areas of long rank vegetation around favoured latrines. They will, however, graze around each other’s dung so it is advantageous to graze cattle and horses together at Wicken Fen in order to extend grazing influence and reduce the areas of rank vegetation. The Wicken animals are not wormed and as a direct consequence dung piles can provide valuable habitats for a range of invertebrates and micro-fauna.

Seeds of some species ingested may survive for up to 12 days in the stomach of a horse.

With these grazing characteristics, together these breeds make the perfect engineers for the long term management of vegetation across the Vision land. 11

Life in a herd… Within a herd of horses a number of smaller groups, or harems, will form consisting of one or two dominant stallions and a few mature females. Harems of different sizes form loose hierarchies within the herd. The position of the mare within the harem is dependent upon her age, experience and the time she joined the harem. 12

Generally the stallions will be found on the periphery of the group of mares guarding them against the advances of any unwelcome stallions. However, it will be the mare who decides when the harem should move on with the stallions following at the rear. It is only during the breeding season that the stallion will step into the fore when challenged by a rival stallion. He will actively herd his mares away from another male. He is also dominant amongst the youngsters in the group and will drive out any young male or female before the age of 2. This is an inbuilt instinct to reduce the chances of inbreeding within the herd.

In cattle society the dominant social bond is between the mother and daughter. Several generations of females will stay together forming a matriarchy. Males will leave the matriarchy at 3 to 4 years of age. As females come into season, males will spar amongst themselves to gain exclusive access to the female for the duration of her season. Again, this is an inbuilt instinct to protect the herd from inbreeding.

Once a cow has conceived, gestation lasts approximately 9 months. In extensive systems where cows are allowed to be weaned naturally, a mother may not come into season for some months after giving birth, allowing her to recover and feed her calf. In free range cattle this strong relationship has many benefits including establishing a stable position for the calf within the hierarchy and structure of the herd. As a consequence, in free-ranging, extensive conditions conflict is mostly reduced to displays. Sometimes little more than a nod of the head is an adequate indication to confirm a dominant animal’s status. 13

How do we manage the herds? Our expert, experienced Grazing Warden is in charge of the herds. A number of systems are in place to ensure the wellbeing of our animals and we keep careful records. We have a four tier system of condition checks, which rely on the assistance of keen ‘lookers’, mostly volunteers, through to the Warden and the on-call Veterinary Consultant. We undertake regular inspections for internal parasites and also if any animals appear to be showing the symptoms of unexplained condition loss. The extensive grazing system, however, does require a more ‘hands-off’ approach to animal husbandry without compromising the animals’ welfare or wellbeing. We do not regularly supplementary feed the animals, so they do not associate people with food. The animals on Wicken Fen may well be better ‘socialised’ than some domesticated animals as the family and hierarchy of the herd has not been disrupted by human intervention. The Grazing Warden works closely with the herds to gain the confidence of the individual animals. This relationship also allows the close observation of the animals without affecting their natural behaviour. The progress of the herds, their reproduction, and any deaths, and the impact on the vegetation are carefully reviewed and lessons learnt and recorded. 14

We follow the five freedoms of animal welfare. The Five Freedoms: Freedom from hunger and thirst Freedom from discomfort Freedom from pain, injury or disease Freedom to express normal behaviour Freedom from fear and distress The Grazing Programme has set out a Reserves Grazing Policy and an Animal Health Plan, both of which incorporate the fundamental Five Freedoms concept developed by the FAWC (Farm Animal Welfare Council), and the Welfare codes introduced by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). These principles are similar to those of the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) led Freedom Foods Scheme to which we are signatories and, as such, are inspected annually.

Animals and Visitors Public access is a prime objective for the Wicken Fen Vision project, thus the breeds selected have to be adaptable to the presence of humans in their range. The Konik Ponies and the Highland Cattle are not only ideally robust for the conditions they are likely to encounter on Wicken Fen, but they also have favourable temperaments. In addition, because of the way they are managed they tend to treat humans with indifference. Because of the extent of their range, where an animal is provoked, they are generally more inclined to move away. However, there are always exceptions and this is why we constantly monitor the behaviour and interaction of the animals. Where we feel there are concerns we have processes in place to remove an animal from the breeding programme.

There are many locations in the UK where animals are free to roam areas of public access. Due to the dominance of arable farming in Cambridgeshire this is unusual here. However, in areas such as Dartmoor or the New Forest, they have become an intrinsic part of the landscape where the general public have acclimatised to their presence. In time we hope this is how the grazing animals will be viewed on Wicken Fen. 15

Photography©National Trust/Carol Laidlaw Printed on 100% recycled paper Please recycle this brochure after use © National Trust 2011 The National Trust is a registered charity no.205846

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