Water Buffalo herd grazing at Thorley Wash

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Wildlife charity introduces herd of Water Buffalo to improve rare wetland habitat in Hertfordshire

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust have introduced a herd of Water Buffalo to graze their Thorley Wash Nature Reserve, which lies to the south of Bishop’s Stortford and is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Photo credit: Water Buffalo at Thorley Wash © Robert Phillips

The animals are considered to be the best livestock option to graze the 13-hectare wetland nature reserve, which is nestled between the River Stort navigation and the Stort backwater, near to the village of Spellbrook. The site, which was formerly known as Thorley Flood Pound, is a great example of a fen habitat and with 99% of fen habitat having been lost in the UK, it is a real rarity in Hertfordshire.

Traffic stopped and heads turned as the Water Buffalo arrived at their new home for the summer, having travelled from Sunnymead Farm in Essex. This species originate from Asia, where they are found in wet habitats such as riverbanks and marshlands, and often used domestically on rice paddies. This means as a species they are hardier and more tolerant of water-logged conditions than domestic cattle and better suited to the conditions at Thorley Wash, which include ditches, waterlogged marshy areas and wet grassland. Their suitability means they should spend more time grazing in the wetter areas on site which the previously used cattle found less favourable. Whilst

grazing in the ditches, they will clear the dense and scrubbier vegetation to improve that habitat, which will help species such as endangered Water Voles, which were successfully reintroduced to Thorley Wash in 2015. In addition, Water Buffalo are less selective in their diet so they should graze more of the coarser vegetation which will enable finer wildflowers and grasses to flourish. If the Water Buffalo were not employed then it would require some heavy machinery such as diggers to keep the ditches clear.

The Trust develops conservation management plans for all of its 40+ nature reserves across the region to encourage the greatest diversity of species, which is fundamental to the survival of native wildlife. This includes the use of conservation grazing – a traditional approach where livestock will feed upon the more dominant and vigorously growing plants, making way for less competitive and therefore rarer plants to thrive. This in turn leads to a wider range of invertebrates and attracts the birds, mammals and amphibians which feed upon them.

The presence of grazing animals creates structural diversity and through their dung microhabitats are created, which again leads to an increase in biodiversity. Natural England, who have designated Thorley Wash as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), have worked in collaboration with the Trust to find the right solution to manage the unique habitat at the site.

In the lead up to the herd’s arrival at Thorley Wash, the entire Nature Reserves Team at the Trust have worked together to prepare for the event, installing an electric fence as an additional barrier on top of normal stock fencing. A team of volunteers will make daily checks on the animals’ welfare.

Steven Werrell, Senior Projects Officer at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust said:

“It has been a fantastic example of collaborative working which has enabled us to graze Thorley Wash with Water Buffalo this year. We worked closely with our colleagues at Natural England to consolidate our management strategy for the wet grassland habitat and ditches of very high environmental value on the nature reserve. From these initial discussions the whole of the Nature Reserves Team has been involved in planning and implementing the necessary infrastructure and preparations for the arrival of the Water Buffalo. We hope that over the coming months we will start to see the impact that they have on site, grazing through the wet grassland habitat reducing the dominance of coarser and scrubby species such as the dominant Sedges and Willows to allow space for finer wildflowers and grasses such as Ragged Robin and Fen Bedstraw.”

Emily Dutton, Grazier at Sunnymead Farm said:

“The Water Buffalo will be at home in the ditches and wet habitats at Thorley Wash and will continuously graze new growth and prevent the ditches there from becoming choked. It’s great to think that the herd will be helping wildlife as they too enjoy optimum living and grazing conditions on the reserve.”

In addition to the Water Buffalo grazing at Thorley Wash, the site is home to a rich variety of wildlife species, including the UK’s fastest declining mammal, the Water Vole, wildflowers such as Ragged Robin, Marsh Marigold, Fen Bedstraw, Cuckoo Flower and Marsh Orchids, and birds including Whitethroat, Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler and Snipe.

Water Buffalo are a rare sight to see in the Hertfordshire countryside. Thorley Wash Nature Reserve is open to visitors throughout the year and summer presents a wonderful time to visit and enjoy all the wildlife associated with it. As on any other site with grazing animals, visitors to Thorley Wash Nature Reserve are asked by the Trust to keep to the designated footpaths, have dogs on a short lead and heed the warning signs on the reserve – for their own protection, their dog’s and the animals in the Trust’s care.

You can find out more about Thorley Wash Nature Reserve at https://www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves


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