A story of rewilding at Belmont
Looking South Westerly towards the Bristol Channel across the road from Belmont, is our rewilding project, Watercress Farm. Now in its second year, we are thrilled to see nature bouncing back.
Over the last year, we have been seeing naturally regenerated trees popping up, saplings born of seeds that have capitalised on the patches of open soil created by the energetic rootling of our free-roaming Tamworth pigs. We are also witnessing a significant change in plant communities across the once-monocultural agricultural fields. Where once there was a single species of grass, we are now seeing complex communities of native herbs and wildflowers taking hold, supporting a vast range of insects and other species with their nectar as well as cycling nutrients and sequestering carbon with their deep root systems.
So, what is rewilding?
Rewilding is to restore the natural processes that once underpinned our natural landscapes. By restoring natural processes such as mixed grazing, seasonal flooding, and natural tree growth, we can restore and regenerate our damaged and degraded modern landscapes. The combination of free-roaming herbivores (pigs, cattle and ponies) with the natural regeneration of scrub and trees enables the creation of a myriad of complex, dynamic and diverse ecosystems.
How do the animals drive the process?
Our Red Devon cattle, Tamworth pigs and Dartmoor ponies perform a vital role in shaping our landscapes, driving natural processes and improving biodiversity. Each herbivore is slightly different, shaping the land in different ways. The coexistence and combination of our favourite grazers create a greater diversity of soil conditions which therefore creates a greater diversity of biodiversity to flourish.
The Tamworth’s, Tallulah and Delilah are mainly known for being two of the most sociable and laid-back ladies of Belmont, but their breed makes them ideal for their rewilding role. They were specially selected as the breed nearest resembling ‘The Old English Forest Pigs’ which would have roamed wild before they were domesticated. The pigs break up and turn over the once-tilled grassland and in doing so create the space for native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers to flourish.
Last month, our Dartmoor ponies on loan from the RSPB returned for another winter season in the rewilding project adding a valuable layer of complexity and diversity through their unique grazing habitats and behaviours. It hasn’t taken long for Kevin and his gang to become a comfortable part of life yet again at Watercress, looking as at home by the river as they do in the woods and fields.
The ponies are naturally selective grazers, so while they do keep the grass short, they are inclined to leave patches that are long or even untouched. This is one of the ways in which they differ from cattle, but they also differ in a more physical sense. While our cattle pull and tear at the grass with their tongues, the ponies crop it tight to the ground with their teeth giving it a neat and even 4mm coverage in places.
By keeping the grass grazed short in this way the ponies make room and allow light through for other plants and species. This reduction of grass competition can make all the difference to biodiversity because the speed at which grass grows often means that other plants never have a chance to take root. Given this opportunity a greater range of flowers and plants will now be able to flourish, each attracting their own niche species of insects and birds.
Wild spaces are often naturally dynamic because increased diversity necessitates action and reaction from all the members of that web. Unlike the pigs and cattle friendly relationship, the ponies are cheeky and territorial and like to ‘push’ the pigs around the fields. By frequently moving into areas in this manner they often push the cattle or the pigs onto a new location which means that not one part of the land gets overgrazed.
Heading into Spring, we are excited to see how the animals interact with the landscape plus report on the number of new animal and plant species beginning to flourish within it.
Bonnie, Estate Team