Sheep pigs

Lowland heath is one of the most threatened habitats in the UK, with a decline of nearly 85% in the last 200 years. Here in Dorset the RSPB manages and helps to manage many areas of lowland heath which are sadly very fragmented. One of the most biodiverse habitats, it is also home to some very specialised species such as the Dartford warbler – Arne’s poster bird – which would not survive were its habitat to diminish too much. Lowland heath is also important for other scarce birds such as nightjar as well as the nationally rare sand lizard and smooth snake and a whole host of dragonflies, beetles, spiders and plants.

Well managed heath on the public reserve
Well managed heath on the public reserve

A lot of the RSPB’s work in Dorset goes on away from  the main public reserves at Arne, Radipole and Lodmoor. A few weeks ago I went with the estates team to Grange Heath, near Creech.  Historically, most of southern England would have originally been lowland heath until the land was developed for another purpose. Until relatively recently, Grange was given over to forestry but under RSPB management, it is being returned to valuable lowland heath. Apart from the odd scots pine, most of the trees have been felled.

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Looking over Grange

Once gone, the heathland can regenerate from the seeds and other plant-life that have remained dormant in the ground. As the photo above shows though, after years of softwood plantation, the ground is left covered in a suffocating layer of pine needles and other debris. For healthy heathland to develop, this layer must be removed.

The conventional way to do this is to use diggers and other machinery to scrape the top layer away. However, for this project, a more environmentally friendly alternative is proving pretty effective!

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A friendly and curious bunch of hard working piglets

Grange heath is home to a lot(!) of Mangalitza pig. They belong to The Salt Pig in Wareham and live free range in certain areas of the heath. By rooting around as they forage for food, they turn over the earth and clear the way for the new heathland plants to take hold again.

The work all done by hardworking pigs
The work all done by hardworking pigs

As the picture shows, apart from trees and gorse, the ground is completely bare earth now. The pigs are rotated around different areas so that the whole area will eventually be systematically cleared. Now, these are just piglets. I titled this post sheep pigs, and now I’ll show you why!

Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat
Teenage mangalitzas, still wearing their woolly coat

These pigs are a few months older than the other piglets and have a thick curly winter coat which they are still wearing. While at Grange, I was also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the newest arrivals to the group. When they are born, these piglets are stripy, like wild boar!

Only a few days old!
Only a few days old!

The younger pigs tend to get very excited at the presence of a human – I suppose they think they might be fed! The adults in their pen though are much more laid back and definitely enjoy a good back scratch.

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The grown-ups take it easy

Ostensibly, we were at Grange to move some fallen trees and repair the fences that they fell on. Unfortunately it turned out that the task was a bit bigger than had been realised…

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Bitten off more than they could chew?

Which happily left some of us with a bit of time to look around at the wildlife. We went for a bit of a walk through the bog, spotting plenty of sundews and seeing a newly emerged dragonfly among other things.

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Common toad
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Striped ladybird
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Mystery caterpillar – if you recognise it I’d love to know!

Hopefully from now on I’ll manage to maintain a weekly update of goings on at Arne. I found the use of the pigs as a land management tool fascinating so had to finish off this post but I’ll try to keep more up to date now!

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