Since so few Commoners exercise their Right of Pasturage on the Forest, we need to use our own livestock in order to graze the heathland and prevent the encroachment of scrub. Currently, we have three types of stock, all of them ‘primitive’ or ‘ancient’ breeds, hardy and able to feed on the nutrient-poor vegetation of the Forest:
The Hebridean sheep, with its small build and distinctive horns, very closely resembles the remains of early sheep found by archaeologists in Iron Age settlements. Over centuries of human selection, domestic sheep were ‘improved’ – they became bigger, with more wool or meat, but needing a richer diet. The primitive varieties were neglected and pushed to the rocky outlying areas of North and West Britain, to colder, higher altitude areas with poorer vegetation, and many of the ancient breeds were lost altogether. The Hebridean hung on in a few private parks, kept as a novelty, and in 1973 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified Hebridean sheep as a breed in danger of extinction.
It is now recognised as one of the best breeds for conservation grazing, hardy in all weathers, easy to lamb and with good mothering instincts. More importantly, the Hebridean is able to subsist on the nutrient-poor vegetation of heathlands, where it will feed on Purple moor-grass and birch, allowing heather to thrive.
Riggit Galloway Cattle
The Riggit is an unusual colour form of the Galloway, better known in its ‘beltie’ form – black with a white belt around the middle. The Riggit, on the other hand, is characterised by a white stripe along the spine. The main body colour can be black, blue/black, red, brown or dun, and the white colouration can extend to form larger patches on the back and hind quarters.
As with the Hebridean sheep, the Riggit Galloway is a primitive, hardy breed closely related to its wild ancestors. Indeed, it has been suggested that the aurochs – the original prehistoric wild cow of northern Europe – had similar colour markings. As well as grazing undesirable species, the Galloways trample bracken, break up the ground and create spaces for other heathland plant species to colonise.
The Exmoor is Britain’s oldest native breed of pony, thought to differ little from the original wild ponies that colonised the British Isles after the last Ice Age. They are able to graze out all year round and maintain good body condition without supplementary feeding. They thrive on the low quality keep of heathland, tackling the invasive coarse grasses such as purple moor grass and are highly selective grazers, which helps to create sward structure. They are one of the few animals that will tackle gorse, rush, brambles and even bracken, and occasionally browse on other young shrubs and trees. Ponies also trample bracken and help to open up the sward with their small, sharp hooves
Dogs on the Forest
Well-behaved dogs are very welcome on the Forest. However, the Forest is a very special place, internationally important for the wildlife it supports and loved by a great many people. In order for our visitors to coexist with each other and with the plants and animals that make the Forest special, we ask that certain guidelines be followed. The Dog Walkers Code of Conduct is displayed in all Forest car parks and can be viewed here.