West Norfolk water buffalo are conservation specialists
- Credit: Ian Burt
A herd of water buffalo is roaming the East Anglian countryside – bringing conservation benefits to an adopted homeland which is a long way from the animals' Asian origins.
These impressive horned beasts might look more at home in the muddy water of a tropical Asian river rather than grazing a meadow in west Norfolk.
But despite appearing out of place, water buffalo are uniquely suited to their purpose here in East Anglia.
That's the belief of the farmer who has reared his herd specifically for their ability to rejuvenate overgrown grassland and stagnant waterways – a talent which has seen the hardy animals supplied to conservation projects around the country.
Edward Pope, owner of Watlington Farms, runs his water buffalo herd alongside his firm's arable operations based at Tottenhill, near King's Lynn.
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The pasture where they are currently kept was once derelict grassland, neck-high in thistles and infested with disease-carrying ticks – all of which would have made it almost impossible for traditional livestock to graze it.
But he said his buffalo herd's unfussy appetite has revived the site, prompting the return of wildlife and bird species including snipe, woodcock, lapwing, cattle egrets and barn owls.
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'The meadows in that area had nettles up around your chin, thistles around your waste, poor derelict grassland and stagnant waterways,' he said. 'There were no wild flowers, no natural diversity of plants.
'Part of it was six feet of bracken. It was a very, very poor piece of land that no-one would want to rent from me for grazing. Ordinary cattle would not have survived due to redwater, which is a tick-borne disease.
'The water buffalo have totally transformed it, and made it into an amazing wildlife haven.
'Over the years, having seen the transformation that has been done to my own ground, word has spread and Natural England have been using them where they would not be able to graze ordinary livestock.
'I have got them all over the country. I have got some on a wetland looking out towards the Isle of Wight, and I have got some in rolling country in Cheshire, in Gloucestershire, in Norfolk... all over the place, but always in herds that are purely there to do a job.'
Although the water buffalo evolved in a very distant landscape, it has developed feeding habits and physical characteristics which are well-suited to some of this country's more challenging habitats.
'They are an unselective grazing animal,' said Mr Pope. 'If you use cows, sheep or horses they will eat the best grass first. But these guys will eat whatever is in front of their nose. If they come across a nettle they will eat it. They are very tough animals.
'What they are very good at is rejuvenating stagnant lakes and old black waterways that don't have any invertebrates or pond life.
'Traditional cattle will poach around the outside but won't do anything in the middle, so the water remains stagnant. Cattle don't swim, but water buffalo do. They love swimming and wallowing.
'If you were to take an ordinary fleece and dunk it in water, it would become very heavy. But if you take a synthetic paintbrush and did the same, there is no water retained in the bristles. These guys have a coat like that, where if they go for a swim or wallow in mud they don't get like a Highland cow, whose coat would become extremely heavy and they would not be able to get out.'
Another benefit of the buffalo's coat is that brambles don't get caught in it, preventing matting and parasite infestation, said Mr Pope.
Mr Pope started his water buffalo herd when he returned to the family farm seven years ago after a spell working as a stockbroker in London.
But the origins of the idea dated back to his school days.
'As a young boy I was wondering what I might have done with this area of derelict grassland,' he said. 'I realised that buffalo were one of the few things that could survive there and rejuvenate it – bringing back the wild flowers, helping with the stagnant waterways and bringing back the pond life.
'I was looking through my Farmers Weekly at the back of my history lesson and I scribbled down the gross margins on the water buffalo on the back of a brown envelope.
'15 years later, I got my first small herd of young stock with a view to breeding them solely for conservation projects, into HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) schemes. I had done the gross margins on them and 15 years later they were virtually identical.'
Mr Pope's breeding herd is now 25 strong, but has been as large as 75 animals.
Meat and mozzarella
Although Mr Pope's herd is primarily aimed at conservation, he said a handful of surplus animals will go to butchers every year for meat, but he has no plans to produce the water buffalo's famous dairy product – mozzarella.
'Inevitably I will have spare animals that don't go into conservation,' he said. 'Conservation is the main element, and the meat is the second element.
'The reason people haven't gone into them in a big way for meat is because they don't fatten very quickly and you cannot just take them to an ordinary abattoir.
'People are always asking if I'm making mozzarella yet. The answer is no. That is all too commercial.
'I want them for the conservation world. That is the main thing. My inspiration and my passion is conservation, so sending them out to a big commercial herd is nothing to do with my passion – although the meat is delicious.'
• Although an unusual sight in the UK, water buffalo are one of the world's most extensively used farm animals, with more people believed to depend on them than any other type of domestic livestock.
• The species originates in South Asia, South East Asia, and China, but after it was domesticated more than 5,000 years ago it has since spread to areas including Europe, Australia and South America.
• There are two main types of domestic water buffalo: Mr Pope's animals at Watlington Farms are river buffalo, which prefer deep water, rather than swamp buffalo which prefer to wallow in mud-holes.
• Their wide-splayed hooves prevent their feet sinking too deeply in the mud, and allow the buffalo to move about in wetlands and swamps, where they thrive on aquatic plants – although they will also eat grass, herbs and shrubs.
• More than 95pc of the global population of water buffalo are found in Asia, with more than half in India – primarily of the river type, which has 10 distinct breeds. European buffalo, which are all of the river type, are considered to be the same breed and are named Mediterranean buffalo.
• Domestic water buffalo are especially suitable for tilling rice fields in Asia. They also produce a lean low-fat meat, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than that of dairy cattle.
• Although their individual yields are lower than dairy cattle's, the animals are responsible for a significant share of global dairy production and are the major milk-producing animal in several countries including India and Pakistan, where more milk is produced from buffalo herds than cattle.
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