Cattle return to Ashridge

The future well-being of one of the best-loved areas of the Chilterns has been secured thanks to the arrival of a small herd of cows

The future well-being of one of the best-loved areas of the Chilterns has been secured thanks to the arrival of a small herd of cows, the result of a long-cherished project between the National Trust, Natural England and three local farmers.

Ivinghoe and Pitstone Hills, part of the Ashridge Estate, represent one of the largest and most ecologically important areas of chalk downland in the Chilterns.  This is an increasingly rare habitat for a rich variety of wildlife, but it needs to be grazed – ideally by a mix of cattle and sheep, in order for it to thrive.

This month, eleven Belted Galloway cattle are being introduced on to the hills by local tenant farmer, Tom Leach, whose family have farmed the land for generations.  Two other farmers, his brother Charles and Jonathan Rowe, are also involved in the partnership project to restore and protect the wider landscape of this area.  Funding from Natural England from the Higher Level Stewardship scheme and the co-operation and support of the National Trust, which owns the land, have made this possible.

The practice of grazing livestock on open areas of countryside has largely died out since the 1930s.  Left ungrazed, chalk downland rapidly turns into scrub and eventually woodland, becoming less accessible for the public and dramatically reducing biodiversity. Other forms of control such as manual clearance are expensive and less effective.

Ivinghoe and Pitstone Hills represent one of the largest and finest areas of chalk downland in the country.  The hills have been farmed since pre-historic times and were last grazed by cattle thirty years ago.  Today local residents and people from much further afield, come all year round to enjoy the beauty of the landscape which is currently managed with a mix of sheep grazing and manual clearance.

Rare flora and fauna that thrive on the hills include the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, recently cited by National Trust expert Matthew Oates as the most rapidly declining butterfly in Great Britain, the Chalk Hill Blue Butterfly, and rare plants such as Horseshoe Vetch, Pasque Flower and Early Gentian. The area is also hugely important for native birds such as Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, as well as migrant birds such as the rare Ring Ouzel, that use the Chilterns as a migration route.

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'It’s been a long-cherished dream to bring back cattle to this beautiful and precious landscape,' said National Trust Property Manager for Ashridge, Graeme Cannon. 'We are immensely grateful to Natural England for their funding and support, and to our tenant farmers for their co-operation and enthusiasm.'

Doug Wallace, Conservation and Land Management Adviser of Natural England, said, 'It’s difficult to over-state the long-term significance of this project which will have enduring benefits for the public who love this area, as well as the rich variety of wildlife which will now continue to thrive there. This is a great example of how we can work together to achieve multiple benefits through the Environmental Stewardship scheme.'

Of the newly-arrived cows, National Trust ranger, Don Otter said, 'Belted Galloways are a very placid breed. They tend to mind their own business and keep away from the public so they are ideal livestock for this location. We hope people will enjoy seeing them in  this landscape and we don’t anticipate any problems.'

Farmer Tom Leach said, 'It’s great to see cattle back on Ivinghoe Hills 30 years after my father last had them there. They have settled in well and are getting to know me, thanks to a daily bucket of nuts. The project has been possible thanks to the advice and support of Doug Wallace of Natural England and of Graeme Cannon and his team at the National Trust.'

Steve Rodrick, Chief Officer of the Chilterns Conservation Board, added, 'Bringing cattle back to Ivinghoe and Pitstone Hills which were traditionally grazed for centuries is a vitally important step forward for the Chilterns as a whole, and I congratulate all those involved in bringing this project to fruition.'