Cows return to London park for first time in 150 years to act as natural lawnmowers

Cattle put out to graze as part of a two-month trial

The pilot is part of a plan to use cattle to better manage and to restore the acid-grasslands in the area
The pilot is part of a plan to use cattle to better manage and to restore the acid-grasslands in the area

Cows have been introduced to Wanstead Park in Northeast London for the first time in 150 years to help regenerate the rare acid grassland.

The English Longhorns have been carefully selected from City of London Corporation's 200-strong herd and will be kept in a smaller zone within the park by cutting-edge GPS collars that send an audible signal to the cows when they stray too far. 

It is expected that the three cows will help regenerate the acid grassland, which supports rare plant species such as Heath Rush and Bird’s-foot and butterflies including small heath, small copper and common blue.  Mowing with machinery would also destroy the park's Yellow Meadow-anthills.

A team of volunteers and staff will be closely monitoring the animals' welfare and encouraging visitors to admire but not feed or approach the cattle Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

"Cattle, and any large herbivores are really important for landscape ecology," said John Philips, a grazing expert at the City of London Corporation. "They have a symbiotic relationship with landscapes and grasslands." 

The last time cows are known to have been grazed in this area was 1880, before the City of London Corporation took the site over. They will now stay for several weeks. 

It's now a popular dog walking spot, receiving 220,000 visitors annually in a normal year, though that has increased 3.5 times during lockdown.

Mr Philips said the cows tended to be naturally wary of dogs. "It's really the smaller dogs are a problem because they have a high pitch, and cattle don't like that," he said. 

The City of London Corporation, which manages the Grade II* Park, has put carefully selected cattle from its 200-strong herd out to graze as part of a two-month trial

Acid grassland is scattered across 27 of the 32 London Boroughs but much of it has been lost because of air pollution, leaving the grassland in fragmented and vulnerable remnants. 

Wanstead Park, taken together with nearby Wanstead Flats, is one of only four remaining large sites in London. 

Mr Philips said the introduction of the cows into Wanstead Park was part of a growing trend of using regenerative agriculture, which had been made possible by the new GPS technology. 

"Most people just see it as an animal, and they seem like as lawnmower, but they've got a much more vital role in the landscapes," he said.