Walton Common – introduction of grazing

Wednesday 13th January 2016

Public statement

Walton Common is a very important site in terms of the ecology and archaeology found there. It is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for the important calcareous grassland communities and associated invertebrates, and a Scheduled Ancient Monument for the bronze and iron-age features.

In order to maintain a species-rich sward and its associated insects and other invertebrates, calcareous grassland requires active management. Without management it rapidly becomes dominated by stands of rank grasses, such as Tor-grass. These grasses, together with the build-up of dead plant matter, suppress less vigorous species and lower the diversity of the site. Eventually, the site will scrub over. This process has been taking place on the common for many decades, photographs taken in 1948 show about 30% less woodland cover than today.

Traditionally, management of calcareous grassland is achieved by grazing and Walton Common was no exception. Avon Wildlife Trust (AWT) have managed the Common for many years through staff, contractors and a dedicated volunteer base. However without grazing this is ultimately unsustainable. For this site to improve, Natural England require appropriate management to be implemented and maintained which includes the reintroduction of grazing. As the site is a SSSI this is a statutory obligation on AWT as tenants which has until now been difficult to implement for a number of reasons, but with the advent of new technology this has become feasible for the first time in decades. The invisible fencing system is non-intrusive, creates no physical or visual barrier and causes no harm to people or pets.

Grazing on site is likely for most of the year but livestock numbers will be low in comparison to the size of the common so encounters with livestock are unlikely. Rare breed short-legged Dexter cattle will be used for grazing, these are the smallest European breed of cattle and are known for their fondness of browsing scrub and less palatable grasses so are ideal for this site. As the public will not be able to see the ‘fence’ because it is a buried cable, signs will be erected on main paths alerting people that they are about to enter the grazing area and requesting that dogs be controlled.

In addition to the reintroduction of grazing, AWT have also begun a scrub clearance programme, selectively thinning smaller trees that have encroached the common. An element of managed scrub, both within and fringing calcareous grassland, can be of great importance to certain birds and invertebrates but excessive scrub needs to be controlled. Selectively thinning scrub will help halt the decline of the grassland habitat, allow it to expand and protect the valuable archaeology found across the site.

Walton Common is a privately owned site that has commoners rights attached to it. One public footpath crosses the common from southwest to northeast but many of the paths that are frequently used are permissive, and open at the discretion of the owner or tenant. Avon Wildlife Trust lease the common from the Miles estate and are entitled to grazing rights as part of the lease. This is in no way infringes on the rights of the remaining commoners who still retain rights on Walton common, and the Trust would welcome dialogue with any commoner who wishes to reinstate their rights as the common is in desperate need of grazing.

The requirements associated with grazing animals on the common are no different to any other part of the countryside. The Countryside Code requires that dogs must be kept under effective control in the countryside, meaning that the access rights that normally apply to open country and registered common land (known as ‘open access’ land) require dogs to be kept on a short lead between 1 March and 31 July, to help protect ground nesting birds, and all year round near farm animals. It is a legal requirement on such ‘open access’ land to keep your dog on a lead around farm animals and horses, for your own safety and for the welfare of the animals.

Walton Common represents an increasingly rare and important ecological and archaeological resource both to the local community and the wider county. The reintroduction of traditional management techniques will help restore this fantastic resource, ultimately enhancing the public enjoyment of the site for current and future generations. The Trust requests that people would support us to this end.