Quinny, Nina and Naru are the first cows to be allowed to step hoof in Wanstead Park in 150 years. Geoff Sinclair, Head of Operations at Epping Forest, explains why the City of London Corporation’s cattle-grazing trial is good news for wildlife conservation. Photo by Geoff Wilkinson
Cows began roaming in Wanstead Park last month for the first time in 150 years. Residents may recall cows in the area more recently, but that was on Wanstead Flats, where they roamed freely until the mid-1990s, although occasionally some may have ventured into the park before being moved on by the keepers. The park is not common land, so there was no right to graze in it. The City of London Corporation, which manages the Grade II* park, has now put selected cattle from its 200-strong herd out to graze as part of a two-month trial, continuing this month.
The pilot is part of a plan to use cattle to better manage and to restore the acid grasslands in the area for wildlife conservation.
Initially, three cows have been introduced: Quinny, Nina and Naru. Two of them are in calf, with the births expected in November, when they will be back in their winter quarters (on a farm near Theydon Bois). If all goes well, the eastern part of The Plain could carry up to 10 cows in future years for late-summer grazing in August and September. The Glade is another potential site.
Although acid grassland is scattered across 27 of the 32 London boroughs, it is mostly now in small fragmented and vulnerable remnants. Wanstead Park, taken together with nearby Wanstead Flats, is one of only four remaining large sites in London (which include Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath).
As well as rare plant species, Wanstead Park’s acid grassland supports a great diversity of insects and spiders. Butterfies abound – especially small heath, small copper and common blue. These species like the hot ground conditions in the summer and autumn and rely on a mix of tussocks, short grass, bare ground and overwintering dead stalks and leaves to complete their life cycles. Grazing is the best form of management for this type of habitat to maintain this variety and prevent loss to scrub encroachment. Although such encroachment can take many decades because of the drought-prone, nutrient-poor soils, it is now at a point in Wanstead Park that the core of the acid grassland could be lost. Once scrub like broom establishes, it can change the soil and pull in nutrients, which allow in taller, commoner grasses. Grazing is particularly important for the park because to mow with machinery would destroy one of the main features of wildlife interest, the yellow meadow ant hills.
A team of volunteers and staff will be closely monitoring the cows’ welfare and encouraging visitors to admire – but not feed or approach – the cattle.
GPS-collar technology is being used, which helps contain the cows by emitting audio signals when they reach a virtual boundary. Location reports are provided at 15-minute intervals, with instant push notifications if the alarm is activated. The boundaries of the area for the cattle follows natural barriers, such as the Perch Pond and lines of trees, which the cows will learn to recognise.
This pilot will help identify better ways to protect Wanstead Park’s historic views at the same time as conserving a wide range of species and supporting an even better ecological balance at the site.