Until the cows come home

7 Mar

Cows_on_wanstead_flatsCattle grazing on Wanstead Flats from ‘Epping Forest Through the Ages’

As many as 500 cattle once grazed grazed freely throughout Epping Forest and many of them made their way down to Wanstead Flats. They were a common sight in the summer months and the cause of occasional traffic hold-ups as they wandered across the roads.

But over time the numbers dwindled and in the 1990s a combination of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease put an end to common grazing.

Many local people want to see the cattle back and the Corporation of London – which manages Epping Forest – has promised on several occasions to look at it. In the early 2000s a small herd was released into the northern part of the Forest and I remember attending a residents meeting with a representative of the Corporation who said they were looking at doing something similar in the south.

Sally Hayns, the Public Affairs Manager for the Corporation of London, sent the following email to Linda Powell, a member of the Newham Issues Forum on E-Democracy.org, in June 2005 in response to a question about returning cattle to the Flats:

We do get quite a few calls asking us when the cows are going to return to Wanstead Flats. As you are probably aware, they were Commoners cattle that were turned out onto the Forest during the summer months by the Commoners who are legally entitled to do so under the 1878 Epping Forest Act. Most of the cows were turned out in the northern half of the Forest but, as they are free-ranging, they tended to gradually make their way down to the southern end because of the better grass. The 1878 Act still applies and Commoners can still turn out their cattle but the numbers doing so declined from the 1950s onwards
due to changes in farming patterns/economics and petered out altogether following the BSE crisis in the 1990s.

The Corporation agrees with your views in terms of the importance of the cattle to the aesthetic qualities of the Forest as well as to the appearance of many areas of the Forest, including the Flats, and the wildlife interest. Many areas of the Forest are deteriorating in terms of scrub encroachment and the resulting loss of plants and invertebrates and many of the open views are being lost. Trying to replicate the impact of cattle grazing with machinery and staff is expensive, more invasive and less effective generally. Accordingly in 2002 the Corporation subsidised a Commoner to turn out some barren English Longhorn cows onto the central area of the Forest as a trial to monitor the impact and with a herdsman to keep an eye on them. There is no economic benefit to the Commoner to do this – he just happens to believe that it is good for the Forest.

We do now need to look at the possibility of extending the grazing to other areas of the Forest and the Flats is one of those. We are currently working on an Integrated Site Plan for Wanstead Flats which brings together proposals for managing the nature conservation, recreation and heritage aspects of the Flats over the coming years. One of these proposals is returning cattle to the Flats. The proposals will be going out to public consultation in a few weeks time so we will be asking people if they would like to see cattle returning to the Flats and, if so, how they might best be managed to deal with issues such as roads and traffic, harassment by people/dogs, etc. the views of your group would be very welcome but it is quite a complex issue.

Complex indeed and nearly eight years later there is no sign of progress. I’m afraid I don’t know the outcome of the consultation on the ‘Integrated Site Plan’ for the Flats and I’d be grateful if someone could point me in its direction.

As Ms. Hayns rightly says, the quality of the land is deteriorating and mechanical intervention is more invasive, more expensive and less effective than grazing cattle. It is surely time the cows came home.

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