Lancashire Wildlife Trust's project using animals as eco-mowers

Sian Parry quit her office job to work outdoors for Lancashire Wildlife Trust on a project using animals as eco-mowers. David Smith reports

It’s a sign of the times when the birth of a couple of lambs is greeted by a flurry of Tweets. While the birds were singing to welcome in spring, Lancashire Wildlife Trust members watched Twitter and Facebook for news of their nine Hebridean ewes.

At the time of going to press, two black, fluffy new arrivals were bounding around a field in West Lancashire with more on the way. These two made a first public appearance at Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve, near Rufford, over the Easter weekend.

The ewes gave birth under the watchful eye of conservation grazing apprentice Sian Parry. And when all the lambs are born they will join their mums and dads providing a vital service for the Wildlife Trust as they munch their way through scrub and grassland on reserves across the region.

This is an excellent way to employ sheep and Longhorn cattle. The way they crop the grass allows natural species of grass and other plants to grow or return to many of the 50 Trust reserves and managed properties.

Sian has spent a year with the sheep – she has been under the watchful eyes of Scarisbrick farmers Maureen and Malcolm Merone – and her hard work has paid off with the birth of the lambs. She was obviously emotional when they arrived, saying: ‘I couldn’t stop smiling. I was as giddy as anything when they were born. I am so chuffed.’

Two years ago Sian’s life was very different and her job was looking after up to 20 office sites. ‘I travelled a lot around the north west as the face of the team fixing everything from blocked toilets to broken air conditioning.‘After ten years I was getting tired. Then I got a dog and I knew I wanted a job that involved being outside but I never dreamed an opportunity like this would come along.’

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While still working at her day job, Sian began volunteering on Sundays at the trust’s nature reserve at Freshfield Heath, Formby. There was already an embryonic conservation grazing programme using a flock of sheep to improve the habitat. Sian enjoyed the work so much that, when a six-month placement with the Wildlife Trust came up, she jumped at the chance. She took on her present role last October when her placement finished.

Sian sets out early each morning to tend to the Wildlife Trust’s conservation grazers – 48 Hebridean sheep and 17 longhorn cows – spread across nature reserves throughout the county.

Since she started with the trust, Sian, 40, has learned how to round up sheep (with assistance from skilled sheepdogs and a shepherdess), test cattle for TB and trim hooves. It’s been a steep learning curve and there’s still a huge amount to take in. But it has been a tremendously positive – if unexpected – career move. ‘I don’t miss a single thing from my previous job. I’m still in touch with the friends there so don’t even have to worry about missing them.’

The herds of livestock are still fairly small-scale compared to some other trusts, but there are ambitious plans to expand the flock and buy Lancashire’s own herd of longhorn cows.

Sian said: ‘Lancashire only has small numbers of stock at the moment and it is something we’d like to expand. Currently, the cattle and sheep are rotated between our reserves at Freshfield, Longworth Clough, Brockholes, Mere Sands Wood and Lightshaw Meadow but there is a lot of potential to grow and use them elsewhere. Conservation grazing is a very well-recognised way of controlling scrub and promoting more wildlife-friendly flowers and grasses to grow.’

Her first encounter with longhorn cattle came as a bit of a shock. These hefty beasts are actually very placid, but their formidable horns and heavy build can be intimidating. ‘They scared me silly,’ Sian says. ‘But I quickly realised how easy they are to work with. I started carrying a stick with me as a precaution, but now I feel completely comfortable with them.

‘They are an extremely tough breed and are very happy being left outside all year round.’ Sian is always expanding her animal husbandry skills. She’s learning shepherding techniques from Maureen, who farms near Freshfield and very generously gives her time (and expert dogs Mist and Nell) to help husband the sheep.

‘I couldn’t go back to an office-based job anymore,’ says Sian. ‘The people at the Wildlife Trust are very professional yet very friendly and the mentality is completely different to places I’ve worked in the past.‘I get a huge buzz out of building a bond with the animals and the people I get to work with. It makes coming to work a pleasure.’

A grazing agreement with Natural England will enable yjr trust to add five diminutive Shetland cows – much smaller than longhorns – and seven Icelandic sheep to the livestock this summer. More longhorns will also be arriving from Cheshire to graze at Lightshaw Meadows.

In the meantime, you can keep up-to-date with the new lambs’ progress by following Sian’s tweets at @lancswildlife, on the Facebook site and the website

The print version of this article appeared in the May 2012  issue of Lancashire Life  We can deliver a copy direct to your door – order online here