Summer 2000

Ten Years On: Sheep Grazing on the Sefton Coast

Article by Saul Brown, Assistant Site Manager, English Nature

English Nature began grazing livestock on the Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve in January 1990 to help maintain the open dune landscape at the north of the site. By this year, both Sefton Council and the National Trust as part of site management have also taken up grazing. Sefton Council's Coast and Countryside Service has introduced Lakeland Herdwick sheep to part of the Ainsdale and Birkdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve and The National Trust as Formby Point now uses local lowland sheep to graze former asparagus fields to maintain them as dry grassland areas.

The grazing programme at Ainsdale has developed considerably over the last ten years. An initial small enclosure was set up as an experiment to see how rank overgrown dune vegetation responded to domestic grazing. This was an attempt to mimic the grazing of the rabbit population which has been considerably reduced by Myxomatosis since the 1950s. Rabbits, which had been warrened in previous centuries, kept the dunes grazed and disturbed the ground with their burrowing. These two activities provide valuable habitat niches in which many rare invertebrates such as the Tiger Beetle Cicindela hybrida, amphibians the Natterjack Toad Bufo calamita and flora such as Yellow Bartsia Parentucellia viscosa find homes. Sheep grazing has proved to be successful, areas of short turf and disturbance now exist through the grazing and trampling activities of sheep and the secondary action of a recovering rabbit population. Without the impact of grazing animals the vegetation on the dunes would become dominated by common grass species and woody shrubs.

Some 110 hectares (272.5 acres) are currently grazed by Herdwick sheep at Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR and Cabin Hill NNR. With the assistance of Spud, a Border Collie sheep dog, the grazing pressure through the sites and the health of the stock can be maintained by moving them onto fresh ground regularly. 275 sheep are brought from Wasdale in the Lake District each October by a National Trust tenant farmer. Being a hardy uplands breed they are able to cope admirably with the mild coastal climate and rough grazing of the dune vegetation. When they are returned to the fells in late April they are in better condition than those that have over wintered there. At a time when upland farming is a marginal occupation this migratory grazing system offers a welcome benefit.

Since January 2000, Sefton Council has grazed 7 hectares (17 acres) of their Ainsdale Sandhills LNR with 30 Herdwick sheep. English Nature staff have assisted Sefton Council Rangers with advice and movement of sheep to establish the 'export' of this management technique from the NNRs. The LNR is an open access site and since the sheep have been present many positive comments have been made from the public. Dog walkers in the main have been very cooperative and only one minor incident of sheep worrying has been reported. Visitors are free to walk through the grazing enclosures, but dogs must be on leads.

Grazing is used by the National Trust on three former asparagus fields. For four months from June 1999, Lleyn crossed with Suffolk ewes from a local farmer were grazed on 9.5 bectares (23 acres). These lowland sheep would be unable to survive on open dunes in the winter, but the summer growth on these dry grasslands is more than sufficient for them. By maintaining these areas as grasslands the ridge and furrow system of the historic fields can be seen. People enjoy viewing the sheep and walking in areas that were previous inaccessible.

At their conception in 1949, NNRs were conceived as sites in which research and pioneering best practice in nature conservation techniques were to be established. The initiation of a sheep grazing project on Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR ten years ago was part of this concept and has lead to the establishment of grazing on the Sefton Coast as a dune management tool. This practice has been adapted and adopted by a number of organisations to help them manage their sites. This maintains internationally important habitats in a sustainable manner with additional economic and recreational benefits.