Red poll cattle are grazing for nature at Lound Lakes reserve
The daily ruminations of red poll cattle are benefiting wildlife on a north Suffolk nature reserve. AUDREY BOYLE reports from the mosaic of water and grasslands at Lound Lakes.
Straddling the boundary of Suffolk and Norfolk lies a remote but beautiful outpost of watery scenery – and a surprising amount of wildlife.
And much of the wildlife at Lound Lakes is dependent on the daily ruminations of a herd of red poll cattle owned by Sarah Barnes, of Hall Farm in Tasburgh, across the border in Norfolk.
Lound Lakes is managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust in partnership with Essex and Suffolk Water and Mrs Barnes is one of the trust's valued graziers, who use traditional breeds which thrive on herb-rich grasslands, and which are essential to their conservation.
She established the Hopeham Herd of red poll cattle with her husband Gerald seven years ago – but why did they settle on red poll?
'It's where the best-tasting beef comes from,' she said. 'But red poll have other qualities we were looking for from a breed of cattle – they are easy calving, hardy, naturally polled, docile and ideally suited to non-intensive farming methods such as conservation grazing. They happen to be the local cattle of Suffolk and Norfolk so that was just another tick in the box.'
At present Mr and Mrs Barnes have 62 cows, with a total of 152 heads in their herd. In the spring they all go out to grass and come the autumn the couple take them back in but like to leave them out as long as possible, weather permitting.
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The cows eat nothing but grass or winter fodder.
'We strongly believe that farmers have shaped our beautiful country-side and native breeds such as the red poll play a huge part in grazing species-rich grassland,' said Mrs Barnes.
'Our herd has regenerated several flower-rich meadows – red poll have a well-developed rumen that enables them to convert low-quality forage into high-quality milk and beef. They aren't picky grazers and will readily browse trees and shrubs.
'These areas are often poor-quality grass, but just by eating the foliage available to them and the fact that their feet will trample and disturb the soil encourages the wild flowers to return which, along with their dung, then attracts the invertebrates.
'Following the bugs, the mammals and birds come – it's a complete cycle and grazing systems are essential to ecological food production.
'If it wasn't for grazing, these areas would be lost as often they can't be farmed by traditional arable methods as they are either too wet, too small for today's large machinery or the topography of the site is too extreme.'
The grazing on Lound Lake's meadows is part of Suffolk Wildlife Trust's work to protect the county's precious meadows.
The loss of unimproved grassland in Suffolk – an astonishing 96pc since 1939 – mirrors the drastic loss elsewhere in lowland England. It is now estimated only 15,000 hectares of species-rich neutral grassland remains in the UK.
In Suffolk, recent estimates indicate there are less than 2,000ha of the habitat left. Land use change – notably the reduction in stock grazing, drainage and the application of fertilisers and pesticides as a result of intensive farming – has been the main cause of the decline.
The trust's head of conservation, Dorothy Casey, said there is a need to integrate biodiversity into thriving food, farm and tourism businesses.
'Meadows play a huge part in our wildflower heritage,' she said. 'They also provide us with the ecosystem services that we need today – such as places for pollinators, a means of storing carbon and a way of slowing down flood water.
'On many Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserves we use stock to help conserve flower-rich grasslands - it's the best tool we've got and is better than doing it mechanically. Grazing is brilliant at creating the varied herb-rich sward essential to some of our rarest plants and ground-nesting birds such as lapwing and snipe. Diverse grass-lands also support a host of insects which provide food for bats, amphibians and birds.'
Partnership works for wildlife and water quality
Lound Lakes, between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, were created in 1857 by the Lowestoft Water, Gas and Market Company which excavated the valley floor to create a series of lakes to store water for the Lowestoft district.
Today, the site is owned by Essex and Suffolk Water and continues to be an important part of the water supply network. In 2013, Suffolk Wildlife Trust entered into a partnership with the water company to manage the 230 acres that surround the lakes, with the aim of preserving water quality and maximising wildlife interest.
The trust's head of property Steve Aylward said: 'Of particular importance at Lound is the way the land acts as a buffer, reducing the impact of diffuse pollution and maintaining low nutrient levels in the lakes. This not only sustains high-quality drinking water but has the added benefit of making the lakes a fantastic wildlife hotspot.'
They lakes have a reputation as possibly the best dragonfly and damselfly site in Suffolk.
'The layers of peat in the valley that have formed over thousands of years support many rare and threatened plants such as bog pimpernel, heath spotted orchid and milk parsley, while the lake margins are equally important for plants, including cowbane and lesser water plantain,' said Mr Aylward.
'Many of the fields surrounding the lakes were cultivated until 1980 but, in response to rising nutrient levels in the lakes, they were converted to permanent grassland and no longer fertilised. Since then, nutrient levels in the thin, dry sandy soils have fallen rapidly and, as a result, an interesting community of plants has established.'
About Red Poll cattle
The qualities of this East Anglian breed were also emphasised by the Red Poll Cattle Society.
'Red poll cattle are a traditional British native breed which was first bred in the eastern counties of England in the 1870s,' it said.
'They are a cross between the long-extinct Norfolk Red (beef) and the Suffolk Dun (dairy). A herd was kept by the Royal family at
Sandringham for many years.
'During the 1950s and 1960s numbers slumped to dangerously low levels as imported continental cattle took over in much of the country.
'Red poll are entirely red in colour save for a white 'switch' on the tail. They are naturally 'polled' or hornless - hence the name.
'Like other traditional breeds red poll thrive in non-intensive, natural farming environments with a simple grass diet. They are well-adapted to our lush green countryside and ideal for grazing land that is managed to conserve wildlife habitats and encourage biodiversity.'