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Cattle wearing smart collars will improve sand dune habitats

Reserve managers at Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe National Nature Reserve can control where helpful herds graze, from their mobile phones.

In June 2021, a herd of 10 cattle arrived at their summer grazing grounds, with a very important job to do. They are an essential part of a project called Dynamic Dunescapes, which aims to restore 7,000 hectares of coastal sand dune in England and Wales.

To provide homes for a diversity of specialised and rare sand dune wildlife, healthy sand dunes need a mosaic of habitat types. This includes short grassland and areas of bare and open sand which are free to move. However, most sand dune habitats are currently over-stabilised and smothered with vegetation. As a result, sand dunes are one of the most threatened habitat types in Europe for biodiversity loss.

By grazing and trampling, cows help to keep overgrowing vegetation under control. They curl their tongues around the grass, pulling it up to form tussocks which are an ideal micro-habitat for a wide range of invertebrates. They also break up areas of dense vegetation, and their footfall creates areas of bare ground that dune habitats need.

Even their dung is important as it offers a vital resource for many invertebrates, including dung beetles which help recycle the nutrients into the soil.

For the first time on the reserve, a team from Natural England are using Nofence technology to help guide the cows to graze. The cattle will wear a special type of collar which contains a GPS tracker.

Guy Mason, Natural England reserve manager at Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe National Nature Reserve, can ‘draw’ out the boundary of a virtual fence using an app on his phone. The cattle’s collars will alert the cows with a sound cue followed by a small, harmless pulse the closer they get to the virtual fence. This means they stay within carefully planned areas.

Guy Mason, Natural England reserve manager at Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe National Nature Reserve, said:

“Nofence was developed with Norwegian farmers and has piqued interest in the UK in a big way.

“I’m very excited about trialling this new technology. I imagine that any reserve officer would welcome the chance to plan some focused grazing, so I feel very fortunate that I get to try just that. These collars will also make it really easy for me to monitor the herd.”

The cattle will graze across Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe National Nature Reserve, starting in the north of the site and working their way south. Their large grazing area will still be enclosed by physical fences. But, this technology can help easily move the herd to different sections of this space. This allows their conservation efforts to be tailored to the reserve’s needs at different times during the summer.

Visitors to the reserve might spot the herd and their new high-tech neck gear and are asked to do the following:

  • look out for any signs
  • keep dogs on short leads around the livestock
  • stay on marked paths and maintain a respectful distance from these busy bovine conservationists.