Dorset ‘super reserve’ recreates ancient savannah habitat to boost biodiversity | Wildlife

The mighty aurochs are gone, as are the tarpan horses and boars, but modern substitutes have been drafted to recreate a great open ‘savannah’ on the Dorset moors.

Instead of aurochs, believed to be the wild ancestor of domestic cattle, 200 Devon red cattle are found in the Purbeck Heaths, while Exmoor ponies replace tarpan horses and curly-coated Mangalitsa pigs do the kind of rooting around of these boars. used to excel here.

The idea of ​​the project is to create more habitats where valuable species such as sand lizard, southern damselfish and heather tiger beetle can thrive.

Two Exmoor ponies at Purbeck Heaths. Photograph: National Trust Pictures

It comes three years after the UK’s first “super national nature reserve” was created in Dorset, bringing together 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) of priority habitat. Within the super reserve, 1,370 hectares of open ‘savannah’ for free-roaming animals, as it was thousands of years ago, is being developed with cattle, ponies and pigs roaming freely to graze at the sides of the deer to help shape a more diverse world. landscape with richer habitats.

David Brown, National Trust senior ecologist for Purbeck, said: “Across large areas of open grassland and heathland, these domesticated grazers are now mimicking their wild ancestors, who would have shaped habitats in the past.

“We can’t bring aurochs, but we can use our 200 Devon red cattle to graze and behave equally. Likewise, Exmoor ponies mimic the actions of extinct tarpan horses, and quirky, curly Mangalitsa pigs root like boars.

Mangalitsa Pig
Mangalitsa pig. Photograph: Terry Bagley/National Trust Images

“We are also discovering that by leaving them to their own lives as much as possible, our grazing animals explore new habitats and discover different types of vegetation to eat – all of which helps to create a more dynamic and complex ecosystem.”

Large herbivores can play a crucial role in helping less mobile plants and insect species move across the landscape, carrying seeds and larvae on their fur and hooves, or in their droppings.

By allowing cattle, ponies and pigs to roam this landscape, they help rare and endangered species such as Purbeck mason wasps and heather bees to disperse and build their populations.

Red Devon Cattle
Red Devon Cattle. Photograph: National Trust Pictures

Brown said: “Grazing in their own way, these animals are slowly forming diverse, wildlife-friendly habitats. Cattle are messy eaters, leaving messy clumps perfect for insects; the pigs turn the soil and help the sand lizards to dig; and ponies nibble tightly to the ground, creating meadow lawns full of specialized flowers such as stork’s beak and waxcap mushrooms.

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“These grasslands can also be very important for pollinating insects, including the rare mining bees. It’s the perfect mix of habitats in which biodiversity can thrive, and a great landscape for people to roam freely too.

Heath tiger beetle at the super reserve
Heath tiger at the super reserve. Photograph: Terry Bagley/National Trust Images

There were unintended consequences. Peter Robertson, the RSPB’s senior site manager, said: “What is surprising is how they have created new ponds by wallowing in waterlogged areas and opened up areas of marsh salty while looking for shellfish.”

Purbeck Heaths Super Reserve, which is to be the base for BBC Two’s Springwatch from Monday, is a mosaic of wet and dry lowland moorland, valley bog, acid grassland and woodland, as well as sand dunes coastal sand, lakes and salt marshes.

Already one of the most biodiverse places in the UK, it is home to thousands of species of wildlife, including the six native reptiles – the pit viper, grass snake, slow worm, sand lizard , the smooth snake and the viviparous lizard.

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