Whatever next -
Article by Alice Kimpton, Site manager, Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, English Nature
the story of Grazing on the Sefton Coast
From English Nature's point of view, currently it's ponies, then Hebredian and Herdwick sheep and then, well, perhaps pigs!
The reserves on the Sefton Coast already use a variety of grazing animals to help with the management of the sand dunes and heathland. Rabbits are here all year round working hard for conservation but other animals are brought in to help. The National Trust, Sefton Council and English Nature all use Herdwick sheep to graze the open dunes in winter and hardy ponies are used by the National Trust and English Nature.
Grazing is really important for sand dunes, as without it the wet slacks and open dunes would develop into scrubby woodland. The Sefton Coast Sand Dunes are specially protected for their plants and animals. Nationally rare species like grass of Parnassus, seaside centaury and natterjack toads thrive in the open dunes.
Many of our dune plants rely on the fact that dune soils have low fertility. Grazing helps to reduce soil fertility. When animals graze they use the plant nutrients to provide the energy needed to live and only return a little to the soil through their poo.
Sheep tend to eat flowering plants so we only use them in the winter when the rare plants have set seed. The Herdwicks used on the National Nature Reserve and Local Nature Reserve come from the Lake District where winters are very hard. The sheep tend to eat the grasses first and then take woody material like creeping willow when there is little else to eat.
Ponies can be kept all year round as they don't tend to eat our fantastic dune flowers. The hardy breeds like Shetland's and Welsh Mountain's will eat woody plants and so help to keep our dunes open.
Goats were trialled on Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR in 2003. They are browsers and take woody material in preference to the grasses and flowering plants. Goats are quite difficult to manage as they need to have a house to go into in bad weather and at night and they escape at the earliest opportunity!
Rabbits are fantastic grazers and do lots of work all year round eating low vegetation. Rabbits were farmed in the dunes until the twentieth century when much of the dune system was planted with conifers. In the 1950's rabbit numbers plummeted due to myxomatosis and woody plants managed to get a hold in the dunes. Numbers are recovering but once the woody plants have reached a certain size rabbits can't graze them.
Deciding on when to graze and with which animal can be difficult as each grazing animal has its own preferences. Using a mixture of different animals throughout the year enables managers to maintain the unique dune plants and animals.
In the future English Nature may look at other animals including pigs to help manage the dunes!