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Conservation grazing in the 21st century: NoFence project at Cranham Common

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Natural England and the National Trust are working together to bring conservation grazing on common land into the 21st century – and it’s all thanks to GPS technology.

The project at Cranham Common will see ten of the Trust’s in-hand herd of Belted Galloway cattle fitted with collars that will track, monitor and control their movements.

Unlike conventional methods of containing livestock that use fences and gates, the project will see virtual fences created and controlled through a mobile app. The new virtual fences require no physical infrastructure and will see the common returned to a wild place, as free as possible from man-made intrusions.

The cows each wear a special collar containing a GPS tracker, audible alarm and a mild electrical pulse generator. If one accidentally strays beyond the virtual boundary, the collar emits audio signals in advance of an electric pulse.

The creation of virtual fences using a smartphone and solar-powered GPS collars will allow the National Trust ranger team to remotely fence, muster and monitor the herd 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Matt Watts, Farm Manager explains: “The cows on the common were previously managed by a system of rotational grazing using electric-fenced paddocks. While this was adequate, it involved a lot of work – the ground is very stony which made pushing and securing the electric fence stakes quite a challenge.

“Over the next few weeks, we will be gently training our herd of Belties, getting them used to wearing the collars and the signals they produce. This is done in a fully fenced area while they learn how it all works. The genius of the system is that once released, if a cow wanders beyond the virtual boundary, the app will let me know. I can then respond much quicker than I would normally have been able to.”

Natural England, who are leading and funding the NoFence project are keen to embrace the new technology. Kate Gamez, Acting Senior Reserve Manager for Gloucestershire National Nature Reserves adds, “The common is a designated National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest and supports a diverse array of species associated with unimproved limestone grassland. This technology finally gives us an opportunity to move beyond the restrictions of paddock grazing with electric fences and implement extensive grazing with all the benefits for wildlife and welfare this entails.

Natural England have been working with the Cranham Common Trust, from whom we lease the common, for many years to achieve extensive grazing in order to better conserve the wildflower rich limestone grassland and its associated species and prevent it from becoming overwhelmed by scrub.”

Lisa Edinborough, Experience and Programming Manager for the National Trust in the Cotswolds explains, “It’s not just the landscape that benefits from the new virtual fences, people do too. The trial will mean no fences or gates so everyone can enjoy uninterrupted views and access across the common. And for us, it’s a more efficient, responsive and flexible approach to our conservation grazing operation.”   

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