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Heathland cattle grazing on Skipwith Common: the benefits explained

By Helen Pentith  //  Fri 14th March 2014

Not many nature reserves or areas of natural beauty have livestock grazing on them. The purpose of heathland cattle grazing might seem tricky to identify at first, but there are actually significant environmental and economic benefits to such an arrangement. Not only does it help the heathland to remain free from shrubs and weeds, it also means that we can produce top quality beef and lamb with unsurpassable taste and a low carbon footprint. Escrick Park is lucky enough to help run Skipwith Common and manage its livestock. The traditional management methods we use make the Common a highly valuable ecological space – almost unique in the north of England – but what exactly makes heathland cattle grazing so important?

Preserving a unique environment

There are only a few surviving pockets of lowland heathland left in the north of England – and Skipwith Common is one such pocket. The Escrick Park Estate helps manage the Common, which lies just a few miles from Escrick, along with Natural England. The Common occupies the space where a World War II airfield once operated, but it has since been transformed into the diverse ecosystem that we see today. In recent years, the Common had begun to be overtaken by scrub woodland, but current restoration efforts have cleared the unwanted scrub and revitalised the heathland. Ditches have been cleared and several ponds have formed since.

The key element in maintaining the balance in Skipwith Common (and stop birch and willow from taking over once more) has been livestock. Instead of relying on costly and often ineffective mechanical management methods, the management team at Skipwith Common found that livestock can do the job far more efficiently.

Flora and fauna

On Skipwith Common, Hebridean sheep, longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies graze – alongside roe deer and fallow deer. The Common is also home to grass snakes and adders, as well as rare bird species such as nightjars and woodlarks.  Many rare heathland flora also thrive here.


The movement of the cattle on Skipwith Common means that some areas are trampled and lowered – forming additional wet areas where niche species can thrive. The cattle consume any tree shoots that grow on the heathland, and also remove irregular clumps of tough heathland grasses. That means that regrowth is encouraged and trees and invasive species or weeds do not crowd out heathland species. Cattle dung also enables fungi to flourish, further increasing biodiversity. Essentially, the heathland is home to a wide variety of both plant and animal species, each suited to their own niche habitats that are created and maintained by the grazing of cattle.

Beef & lamb

Skipwith Common’s cattle also provide economic benefits. Controlling cattle numbers to maximise environmental benefit means that we’re able to produce beef and lamb when the animals reach a certain age. For example, we sell Skipwith Common hogget – lamb that’s up to two years old and full of much more flavour (and lower cholesterol) than your standard supermarket fare. The lengthy hanging time for the meat further enhances the flavour. Visit our website to order  longhorn beef or Hebridean lamb and enjoy the best that the natural world has to offer.

We’re striving to manage Skipwith Common in a sustainable manner. In 2010, our efforts were recognised when the Common was designated as a national nature reserve. Want to get involved? Why not become a Friend of Skipwith Common?

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