Why grazing is essential

The Common has been an important resource for local people to graze their animals since the earliest historical times and, over the centuries, regulation was needed to prevent over-grazing. By contrast, in recent history under-grazing as a result of a decline in stock farming has been the biggest threat to the survival of this wildflower-rich grassland.

Without grazing (aided by human conservation) coarse grasses, gorse and hawthorn scrub would take over. These would out-compete the wild flowers, some of which are critically endangered nationally, so greatly reducing the wildlife diversity and the value of the Common for recreation.

Lawnmowers on four legs

Sheep are good for grazing over a wide area, especially the slopes and shorter grass. There are typically up to 1500 sheep on the Common at the height of the grazing season. But sheep are selective grazers, favouring sweet, lush grass and flowers first. They graze with a mowing effect, nibbling the grass off close to the ground layer.

To tackle the taller and coarser grassland and to introduce variation in the structure of the grassland sward, we need cattle too. They wrap their long tongues around tall, rough grass and pull. Cattle are much less fussy, and graze even the steepest of banks. Due to their size, some beasts weighing close to 1 ton, they are very good at trampling the scrub that we are trying to manage. Their weight helps break up gorse and thorn, and so slows regeneration of this scrub.

Cattle were reintroduced to the Common in 1993 for the summer months, following many years of under-grazing. The aim was to improve the ‘condition’ of the SSSI; this is measured by such factors as diversity of flower species, herb to grass ratio and variation in sward height.

The seasonal cattle grazing led to some improvement to the condition of the grassland, but meeting Natural England’s targets called for year-round grazing. Therefore in 2006 the Board of Conservators took the major step of purchasing its own herd of cattle, in effect to be ‘lawnmowers on four legs’. We now have 33 black Galloways. They were bred in the hills of Dumfries and are a hardy, native, rare breed with thick coats that protect them whatever the weather. This makes them perfect for over-wintering on the Common; in fact this breed actively dislikes being shut indoors. They are just right for a public place such as Cleeve Common as by nature they are placid – and do not have intimidating horns!

During the winter months, the Galloway cattle are contained in large temporary paddocks in order to focus the grazing on the areas that most need it. In summer, they are allowed to roam freely over the whole Common, along with the sheep.

The results have been very encouraging. Grass quality has improved considerably and practically the entire site is now judged as ‘favourable’ by Natural England.

Not only do the cattle eat a lot of grass, but they also drink a lot of water. During 2010, the Board undertook a major project, funded through the Rural Development Programme for England, to install piped mains water across the Common, requiring a pumping booster station, 5.8km (3½ miles) of piping and nearly 3000 tons of sand. The benefits are enormous. The pipeline saves the need for endless trips back and forth with tractor and water tanker, which were both time-consuming and causing erosion problems. Most importantly, it ensures the long-term viability of cattle grazing as the major contribution to grassland conservation.

Commoners’ rights

Commoners’ grazing rights are granted to certain owners of farmland in the local area. These rights are confirmed in the registration of common land prepared under the General Common Registration Act 1965. Commoners are also registered with the Commons Registration Office of the County Council. The rights permit seasonal grazing of specified numbers of sheep, cattle and other animals according to the size of the local land holding.

Only one of the registered Commoners is currently exercising their right. Instead, other local farmers are invited to put sheep on the Common to increase the grazing pressure. The grazing season is prescribed by the Bylaws and lasts from late April until the end of November.

Commoners do not play any part in maintaining or funding the maintenance of the Common: the Trust bears all the responsibility for management and conservation.