Sheep graze differently to cattle and ponies, nibbling very close to the ground, which in high densities can create a very short sward. This can be of benefit to ground nesting birds such as lapwing, which require a short sward in order to see approaching predators. A short sward is also beneficial to grassland fungi. Sheep grazing in the Elan Valley is helping to maintain the waxcap fungi there.
As well as grazing, sheep also can subdue scrub and bramble growth by browsing, pushing through dense scrub and trampling saplings. For example, at Silent Valley, sheep help to ensure the persistence of the violet food plant for fritillary butterflies through sheep grazing.
One benefit over a larger animal is the ease of management; try manhandling a highland cow and you’ll soon see the benefit of a small sheep! Their smaller size also means they can sometimes be used in difficult terrain like steep slopes, or areas that larger animals cannot access. For example, at Wildlfowl and Wetlands Trust Llanelli, sheep have been transported to graze islands for nesting birds by boat! They also are less likely to cause damage such as poaching.
Hardy native breeds tend to be the most appropriate for conservation grazing, such as Shetland or badger faced sheep, as they are small, can thrive on a varied forage and are usually able to survive and even lamb outside in all weathers.
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Photos by Jane Bissett, Kennixton Sheep.