Grazing can be a useful heathland management practice in the right circumstances, and replicates one of the practices of the commoners of old. Potential benefits include the inhibition of tree seedling growth, a reduction in the cover of grasses, maintenance of structural diversity of vegetation, and an increase in herbaceous plant diversity. There is also currently substantial deposition of atmospheric nitrogen onto the heaths equivalent to approximately 21kg per hectare which favours the formation of non-heathland habitat. Cattle grazing can assist with removing this fertility.
Grazing does not, however, remove the requirement to undertake additional interventions. Grazing intensity must also be carefully controlled. Given these shortcomings, nevertheless grazing is widely regarded by heathland conservation managers as an important additional tool to maintain this rare habitat in an ideal condition. Grazing has been reintroduced to a large number of UK lowland heathland sites in recent years, with rare breed cattle such as Devon Reds used within temporary seasonal enclosures on the Pebblebed Heaths (e.g. Hawkerland and Colaton Raleigh Commons) to manage the wet heath and mires. Their presence helps to improve the habitat for some rare European protected species such as the southern damselfly. Grazing is undertaken on the Pebblebed heaths in the summer months (May to September) when there is sufficient grass growth to support them.
After a full public consultation in 2011 an application was made to the Planning Inspectorate to erect permanent fencing to enclose 469ha of the core area of the Pebblebed Heaths. This included Aylesbeare, Harpford, Hawkerland, Woodbury, Bicton, Lympstone, East Budleigh and Withycombe Commons. Of these areas, all but Lympstone and Withycombe Common were owned by Clinton Devon Estates and managed by the Pebblebed heaths Conservation Trust, with Aylesbeare owned by Clinton Devon Estate, but managed on its behalf by the RSPB. The proposal was approved in perpetuity by the Planning Inspectorate in 2012. Support for extensive grazing of the Pebblebed Heaths comes from Natural England, the RSPB, the East Devon AONB, the Devon Wildlife Trust, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust and the British Dragonfly Society.
Although Planning Permission has been granted for the permanent enclosure of the Commons areas listed above it was decided in 2013 by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, and with approval from Natural England, that a staged approach would be taken of fencing the Commons areas that it manages, with only Bicton Common fenced at this time. It was felt that such an approach would ensure that legal obligations to return the heaths to a favourable status would be met enabling England to meet its Biodiversity 2020 targets, whilst ensuring a thorough trialling a new management system and enabling public reaction to be gauged. Although temporary grazing with cattle during the summer using electric fences has been occurring in Hawkerland and on Colaton Raleigh Commons for many years, it is recognised that permanent fencing comprises a significant development. A planning amendment is currently being sought to implement the updated plan. Read more.
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