If you have ever stepped out into a late spring evening and stood silently as the sun sets over the heart of Exmoor and listened, you would hear the buzz of insects, birds chirping into darkness, and maybe a sheep calling to her lambs in the distance. The trees are turning greener alongside the moorland, the grass is growing, the air is warming and perhaps the first swallows have started arriving. In the distance Exmoor ponies and red deer graze, and the first bats of the evening are just starting to appear. Biodiversity is all around us, both seen and unseen, but as it’s Exmoor, so is livestock, whether that is sheep, cattle, or ponies. These two aspects of Exmoor could be seen as the most important because one would not exist without the other.

Exmoor no doubt contains exceedingly diverse habitats and boasts a vast array of species such as red deer, Exmoor ponies, 16 of the 17 British breeding bats, internationally rare lichens, and some of the UK’s rarest butterflies, such as the high brown fritillary. Exmoor's unique characteristics mean it is critical to protect and develop the environment in order to preserve current habitations and ecosystems for future generations. Exmoor has been sculpted by generations of farming, creating patchwork fields enclosed by hedgerows or high Devon hedge banks. Both farming and the natural environment are inextricably linked, and livestock grazing goes hand in hand with biodiversity.

Much of the biodiversity decline seen both nationally and on Exmoor can be attributed to a change in land use, particularly agricultural intensification and change in moorland management. For example, most of the moorland on Exmoor struggles with under grazing as the rise of animal diseases such as TB, fluctuating livestock prices and the increasing cost of labour means keeping livestock on the moor is of too greater risk. However, livestock creates huge opportunity for biodiversity as livestock production covers 80% of the world land use, but on the other hand is responsible for 30% of global biodiversity loss. Nevertheless, under grazing could increase the spread of unwanted vegetation such as bracken and rushes especially in the fields closest to the moor.

Livestock change the vegetation cover and structure, which is significant to small mammals, whilst ungulates could be affected by increased interference competition and the change in forage quality and quantity. In addition to this, animal manure positively effects nutrient cycling in the soil, increasing the soil organic matter, boosting the fertility and therefore can lead to an increase in activity of arthropods such as the dung beetle. Moreover, the presence of livestock could reduce potential pressure on nests and chicks of birds from predators, such as foxes or badgers which are both common on Exmoor. Invasive species can also be controlled by grazing of livestock, which can have positive effects on the plants trying to compete with the invasive species and minimises disturbance to the soil. This is particularly important for Exmoor where grazing on non-native species of vegetation creates opportunities for the native plants such as heather.

Local breeds such as Exmoor Horn Sheep and Red Ruby Devon Cattle provide opportunities for grazing to benefit biodiversity as any domesticated species such as those are very similar to their wild ancestors just different in aspects such as their size or temperament. This means that their ecological function should be very similar and should therefore be a niche substitute for previously extinct species having a beneficial effect on the ecosystem. They are known to be less selective in what they eat, and being a traditional breed, are a lot hardier. They are more resistant to challenging weather conditions, good tempered, and have a good ability to utilize low input feeds. In places where grazing has been present for thousands of years, which would be most of Exmoor, the systems have adapted to being grazed, and thus, a removal of grazing species can lead to negative impacts on the plants and ecosystem, decreasing biodiversity. Therefore, this presents grazing as an important aspect of Exmoor in supporting the biodiversity which is sustained through grazing.

Light grazing from native breeds can result in greater diversity of plants which is why local farmers must not overgraze and risk losing biodiversity, but also harming their land limiting future grass production. It can contribute to native woodland regeneration therefore increasing infiltration and creating a bigger habitat for birds to nest and forage. A high stocking density means that animals will be forced to eat older and tougher plants and vegetation such as purple moor-grass and false oatgrass. Thus, this is a useful way of restoring neglected grasslands or controlling usually unpalatable species. Grass being grazed lightly can help boost bird numbers, such as the Skylark which need taller grass to nest in and benefits hares, squirrels, and insects. Cattle in particular, due to their weight and shape of their hooves, trample plants, manure, urine and hard soil crusts into the soil. Their trampling creates gaps in the sward allowing annual and bi-annual plants to establish more easily and allows new seeds to sprout and breaks up accumulated litter. This in turn increases nutrient flow allowing for more grass growth and improves soil carbon. Furthermore, this would increase water infiltration and retention, something of vital importance for Exmoor which already receives over 2000mm of rain a year, with a considerable number of rainy days. If soil is in poor condition due to a lack of grazing, then much of this water runs off instead of infiltrating into the soil and has the potential to destroy ecologically valuable habitats.

In conclusion, grazing livestock has shaped the unique landscape and history of Exmoor making it home to a rich variety of species. Reduced grazing, particularly among native Exmoor breeds, would have disastrous consequences for biodiversity and the ecology, causing further loss. Grazing aids in the creation of favourable habitat structures for birds, animals, and invertebrates, which serve as both a home and a food supply and play a role in supressing woody encroachment. Livestock can be a wellspring of answers for restoring and supporting biodiversity, resulting in a wildlife-rich Exmoor.