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Grazing the fen

Mixed grazing has remained the principle annual management method over the majority of the open fen habitat, with only sections of the core saw sedge beds remaining on a 4 year cutting rotation. The restoration grazing has very visibly had a number of benefits on the structure of the fen swards. konik ponies, cattle and Hebridean sheep are all used to manage the fen vegetation.

sheepball Sheep

The Trust's own flock of Hebridean sheep graze the drier margins of the fen. These sheep are tough, lightweight and thrifty, browsing on young, woody scrub in addition to grazing. We have had few welfare issues with this breed.

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cattleball Cattle

Cattle belonging to a local farmer are also being used to graze the fen. Traditional beef cows with a sensible temperament are best suited as they can progressively put on a good body of muscle and fat before being turned off in late autumn or early winter for market.


grazingball Ponies

Our herd of konik ponies are at home on the fen throughout the year and graze the rough, woody fen plants. They are quite happy to wade up to their bellies in water, and so graze some of the deeper areas of the fen.

The pony grazing programme has proved a great success and some of the herd now work at the Trust's Hen Reedbeds reserve. We have also sold some of our animals to the RSPB, to work at Minsmere bird reserve. The Broads National Park acquired some Dutch koniks and have piloted an extensive grazing scheme for the Broads fens. The same type of pony can also be seen at National Trust's Wicken Fen. A new Fen Grazing Tier was introduced by MAFF (now DEFRA) into the Broads ESA scheme a few years ago, inspired by our success and the National Park experiments.

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Grazing Characteristics

The Hebridean sheep have been used to limit the re-encroachment of scrub on the higher ground within the reserve, typically the areas of acid grassland, and wet and dry heath. They have actively checked birch, oak and sallow species, and held back bramble regrowth after mechanical flailing.

Patterns of vegetation structure have increasingly tended toward a true mosaic of vegetation types through the pony and cattle grazing regime. Each year, the progressive reduction of invasive reed within the mixed fen vegetation has been encouraging, overshading of the shorter fen sedges and herbs has been subsequently reduced, along with a reduced litter layer. The fen now comprises distinct areas of open aquatic-phase fen, tall herb fen, saw sedge beds, mixed fen, fen meadows, wet and dry heath and acid grassland. Supplementary mechanical cutting has concentrated on higher ground with shallower peat soils where soft and hard rushes have predominated, following earlier scrub clearance and soil disturbance.

During the winter months, both cattle and ponies forage for more succulent, sugary foods in the absence of palatable green vegetation above ground. Reed rhizomes are consumed avidly, and can be a useful controlling strategy for this species. However, saw sedge rhizomes and basal stems also become target fodder at this time of year if little else is available, and if left unchecked, could result in an appreciable loss in density and area of the important sedge bed habitat. Each year, the ponies and cattle have typically been run on the fen between late April and December, avoiding the wettest and most barren winter months.

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