Over 100 rare breed farm animals have been drafted in to protect wildlife on Northern Ireland’s nature reserves.
Northern Ireland Environment Agency is employing a small army of Shetland cattle and sheep, Hebridean sheep, Dexter cattle, Exmoor ponies and rare Polish Konik ponies to graze grassland, dune and wetland habitats to boost wildflowers and other wildlife.
Each breed has been carefully chosen according to their diet and ability to thrive in rough habitat.
Among them are five rare Konik ponies — direct descendants of the now extinct European wild horse, the Tarpan.
NIEA also has nine Exmoor ponies, 31 Wiltshire Horn sheep, eight Hebridean sheep, eight Shetland sheep, four Jacob’s Sheep, 33 Dexter cattle and 13 Shetland cattle grazing its land. Only an estimated 2,000 Exmoor ponies are left globally, with a breeding population of only 300.
It was also the NIEA that introduced the first Shetland cattle to Northern Ireland and these are successfully improving the habitat in the Montiagh’s Moss Nature Reserve in Co Antrim.
NIEA Nature Reserve manager Marcus Austin said: “The wildflower-rich grasslands of many of our nature reserves need to be grazed to prevent the invasion of scrub. The soil fertility must also be kept low so that the grasses don’t smother other plant species.
“This presents managers with a dilemma as farmers look for high productivity and fast growth of livestock, so few are interested in putting their animals on NIEA reserves.
“We started grazing our lands with traditional livestock breeds in 1999, when four Exmoor ponies were introduced to Ballymaclary Nature Reserve at Magilligan. The area was facing a scrub invasion which was strangling rare dune plants we were trying to protect.
“Exmoor ponies were the perfect choice to tackle this as they thrive on a diet of scrub and can stay out all winter because they grow a waterproof double coat that shields them from the worst of the weather.
“Grazing and breeding has continued and we have introduced more species according to the specific needs of our nature reserves in our efforts to re-create traditional habitat management.
“Whilst Wiltshire Horn Sheep munch on a meal of shrubby plants and Dexter cattle enjoy a lunch of scrub, they are playing a crucial part in improving the environment for wildflowers, birds and insects.”
The natural grazing habits of these traditional breeds play a crucial part in keeping down areas of scrubland, which improves the environment for birds and insects and creates a mosaic of habitats in delicate wetlands.
“Our multi-cultural species are flourishing in their new homes and we are particularly pleased that NIEA’s grazing programme is helping to increase numbers of these beautiful animals and so protecting their bloodlines,” Mr Austin said.
“In the northern area alone, the population of Exmoor ponies and Wiltshire Horn sheep has doubled whilst our Dexter cattle population has more than trebled. We hope that our Hebridean and Shetland breeds will be just as successful.
“We are confident that our rare breeds will continue to play a key part in helping NIEA to deliver its conservation goals and enhance the biodiversity of our nature reserves. There aren’t many species that can actually improve their natural environment through eating their favourite foods,” he added.