Cattle at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve. Lincolnshire

Extensively grazed grassland

Extensively grazed grassland creates a diverse sward structure, rich in plants and invertebrates and beneficial to a variety of birds.

Extensively grazed grassland

One of the major agricultural changes to affect farmland birds in the UK has been the intensification of grassland management.

Typical modern agricultural grasslands are  characterised by high fertiliser inputs and reseeding, which leads to a uniform, fast-growing sward, dominated by rye grass. 

Although improved grassland usually has little wildlife value when intensively managed, extensification through modifications to the grazing, cutting and hydrological regimes can create suitable conditions for a range of declining species. 

Key points

  • Birds have strong preferences for certain sward structures.
  • Longer vegetation produces vital seeds and large insects.
  • Areas of unimproved grassland should be valued and maintained.
Luing cattle grazing, Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll. Scotland

Benefits to wildlife

Although improved grassland usually has little wildlife value when intensively managed, extensification through modifications to the grazing, cutting and hydrological regimes can create suitable conditions for a range of declining species. 

Extensively grazed pasture can be rich in wildlife   

These areas create a wide variety of niches that can be exploited by a diverse range of plants, butterflies, bumblebees and other insects.   

They provide valuable food for birds   

For many birds food can be a limiting factor, particularly during the chick-rearing period. Birds such as lapwings, skylarks and yellowhammers feed on earthworms and insects during the breeding season. Pastures that contain flowering dandelions provide seed for linnets and goldfinches when feeding chicks. Such pastures can have an abundance of seeds when managed appropriately. This is particularly beneficial during winter when invertebrate feeders, such as starlings and thrushes, exploit extensively grazed grassland.   

They provide important nesting habitat   

The diverse sward structure often associated with extensively grazed pasture helps ground nesting birds by providing nesting cover. A reduction of stock on grassland can reduce the loss of nests of birds such as lapwings, curlews, yellow wagtails and skylarks to trampling. Extensive grazing in fields with a high water table or wet flushes can help redshanks and snipe.    

Which sites are best?

Fields and sites you know are used by the birds you wish to help can be enhanced by extensive management. Birds such as lapwings, redshanks, curlews, snipe, skylarks and yellow wagtails all nest in fields, favouring large fields with open boundaries. 

Boundary nesting species, such as the yellowhammer, will use extensively grazed pasture to find food for their chicks. 

Fields with a high water table can offer the best opportunities for extensive management. Breeding wading birds often feed in wet areas, which can be an  important for chick rearing. 

Young Lapwing on Alistair Robb's farm. Stirlingshire

Grazing management

It is best to use species objectives rather than set prescriptions to create the correct habitat for target species. The precise stocking density will depend on soil fertility, soil type and local climate. 

For breeding waders, aim to achieve suitable breeding habitat by the middle of March before nesting starts. Aim to keep livestock numbers to a minimum where birds are known to be nesting. Reducing stocking densities during April and May will reduce the number of nests lost to trampling.     

Higher stocking rates may be needed for some species such as the lapwing, which need shorter vegetation, but others, such as the curlew, need taller vegetation and thus lower stocking rates.   

Grazing with cattle leads to a greater diversity of habitats than grazing with other stock and is preferred when managing damp grassland for wading birds.   

If possible, do not put stock which have been recently treated with an avermectin (especially if this is bolus treatment) onto extensively managed grassland as this may lead to a reduction in the diversity and abundance of invertebrates.     

Avoid undergrazing, which may lead to rank vegetation and eventually scrub. Grazing management should aim to remove the years grass growth before grazing ceases in the autumn.

Grazed Pasture PDF Screenshot


How to manage grazed pasture. PDF, 137Kb.

Grazed pasture advisory sheet (England)

Maintenance information

Cutting regimes     

  • Where required, rushes should be cut between September and November, and ideally followed by aftermath cattle grazing.       
  • Where fields are to be used for a crop of hay or silage, avoid mowing before mid July. Cutting late allows plants to set seed, providing food for seed-eating birds over the winter. Alternatively, leave awkward field corners or whole margins uncut, providing a seed source for birds and a habitat for over-wintering insects.       
  • If injurious weeds need controlling, try to do this outside the breeding season. Setting the cutter at a height of about 15 cm avoids damaging the underlying sward. Alternatively, use a weed wiper or spot treatment.     

Wet areas     

  • Try to maintain damp pastures or, where appropriate, introduce wet flushes by blocking field drains. These provide an abundance of insects in areas where adults and chicks can feed. Even small damp areas can be useful for birds such as snipe and song thrushes.     
  • Cattle create a varied sward structure and are able to cope with wet ground better than sheep.     

Other management considerations

  • Avoid applying artificial fertiliser before mid May. Farmyard manure and slurry should ideally be applied up to the end of February and from mid May onwards. Farmyard manure can increase surface activity of earthworms, which are the main food of some waders, particularly lapwings.       
  • If agricultural operations, such as harrowing, are part of the existing management, undertake them outside the breeding season, ideally before mid-March or after July.       
  • Where appropriate, avoid supplementary feeding or move feeders regularly to avoid poaching. In some instances, supplementary feeding using hay can be a good method of introducing new plant species to the sward.
Alistair Robb won the Operation Lapwing award for Scotland in 2005, after having raised the Lapwing population on his farm from 0 to 63 pairs