Beefing up protection of bird habitat

Image: Wolfgang Hasselmann, Unsplash

Grazing cattle will be moo-ving into a bird roosting site on the Severn Estuary to help preserve the habitat for protected species.

A herd of around 30 cattle will take up residency on a saltmarsh at the Bleadon Levels, south of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, UK.

Conservationists at Wessex Water hope the herd will help manage the biodiversity of the 16-hectare site by munching on a dominant grass called sea couch, which has formed a tall, dense mat within the habitat, preventing wading birds and wildfowl from feeling safe enough to roost there.

Introducing the cattle should help to keep sea couch lower and encourage rare birds to roost at high tide, while also establishing a wider variety of plant habitats for birds, small mammals, amphibians and bats.

Man-made salt marshes such as Bleadon Levels provide many environmental benefits. Image: Wessex Water

A number of wading bird species - including some such as redshank that are suffering a decline in numbers nationally - favour less salty conditions provided by the mouth of the River Axe draining into the Severn. Other species like curlew and wigeon also feed on the Severn Estuary at low tide before moving on to the saltmarsh to rest and roost when the tide comes in.

Many of the birds rely on lower-growing vegetation to help them stay on guard for nearby predators, such as peregrine falcons and buzzards.

"Having the cattle on the saltmarsh will help to keep dominant vegetation lower and maintain the important diversity of plant and animal life."

Rosie Maple, Wessex Water

Wessex Water conservation officer Rosie Maple said, “Coastal saltmarshes are a vital component of the estuarine ecosystem because they are home to so many plants and animals not found in other habitats.

“The abundant invertebrate prey, coupled with the shelter of succulent plants and tidal creeks, makes this habitat a valuable place for birds to gain weight and rest prior to their long spring migrations.

Wading bird species such as redshank are suffering a decline in numbers. Image: Dedu Adrian, Unsplash

“Man-made saltmarshes like the one at Bleadon Levels also provide a number of real benefits to the environment alongside biodiversity. For example, as the establishing vegetation on them traps tidal sediment, it locks up the carbon in the plants, preventing future release as CO2, and the structural complexity of the land also helps with flood protection.

“But it’s also important these areas are carefully managed so a wide range of plants and animals can thrive and birds can roost safely. Having the cattle on the saltmarsh will help to keep dominant vegetation lower and maintain the important diversity of plant and animal life.’’

Sea couch has formed a dense mat within Bleadon Levels. Image: Wessex Water

Wessex Water created the saltmarsh at Bleadon Levels in 2000 on land previously used for growing maize. It since become an established home to a wide range of salt-tolerant plant species such as sea thrift, sea milkwort and the locally rare sea clover.

Settling the cattle in to the site will take place between 2023 and 2025.