Whitlingham Marshes – Cattle Management!

Friday 29th April 2016

Today’s work on Whitlingham Marsh was a continuation of the work we had started the previous week (Friday 22nd April), which was to install two gates on the marsh which will help to contain the marsh cattle. The marsh area is about 55 acres of wetland and the cattle were introduced here last year in an effort to manage this important area which is so close to the City Centre. In previous years the marsh reed had been cut by mechanical means, but this has drawbacks; the main ones being, – vehicular access, – ground compaction caused by the cutting machine – and the possibility that this machine could sink and become stuck  and embedded in the marsh. Cutting is usually done at the end of the summer (which does not allow for other plants to grow in the spring) and the cut reed has then to be gathered and either stored or disposed of in other ways.

A bit chilly this week!
A bit chilly this week!

Grazing cattle have been used on Marston Marsh (another Fringe Project managed site) for years with great success, so the same approach was tried on this site in 2015 with similar success. As a result the appearance of the marsh in spring this year is vastly improved to what it has been in previous years. Whitlingham Marsh is a lot wetter than Marston Marsh, so a different breed of cattle, Dexter, was introduced.

Dexter cattle are the smallest UK breed which were originally from western Ireland and introduced into England in 1882. Ten Dexters were bought by an Oxford farmer in this year and were first shown at the Royal Show in Norwich in 1886. They are a hardy and very docile breed which have their origins in the boggy mountain regions of southern Ireland, so ideally suited to grazing Norfolk marshes. Dexters are the smallest breed of cattle in Europe and at shoulder height stand between 95 – 110cm. Completely at home in these conditions, they graze the reed and sedge which allows other plants to grow which would otherwise be dwarfed and swamped by the vigorous reed, creating more diverse plant growth will attract more insect and bird life. Put back onto Whitlingham marsh from their winter home in Poringland a week ago, there are twelve cattle on site – a bull, nine cows/heifers and two calves. Their area of marsh is in different parts which are divided by wet fences (dykes). There are two access points which connect these two areas and it is here that we were erecting the gates.

What a difference a week makes with, cold weather the first week and lovely sunny weather the second week we were on site, lovely stuff!!
What a difference a week makes with, cold weather the first week and lovely sunny weather the second week we were on site, lovely stuff!!

Installing a 12 feet, 5 bar gate, is not quite as easy as installing a small garden gate. The main difference is their weight and the size of the posts that are needed. Add to that the fact that we are working in very soft terrain and cannot use concrete to anchor the posts, so to keep the gates secure we have to use posts that are almost 8ft x 6’’ x 6’’ and are heavy. Lifting an 8ft. post in and out of the 3ft. plus hole being dug (to check the correct depth) would test many weight lifters. The gates and two posts (per gate) have to be carried over soft and uneven ground for approx. 200 yds and with nosy cattle getting in the way this adds to the time it all takes. Hence on our first visit we only managed to install the gates and on our second visit we had to construct fencing either side of the gate. This fencing was needed to complete the barrier across the corridor between the dykes. These two barriers now completed, the marsh has two departments (one small and one much larger) which help to manage the movement of the cattle when circumstances require, for example veterinary checks or seasonal movements.

Written by Alan Rae, Norwich Fringe Project Volunteer