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Meet the curly cows keeping Heathrow wild

Meet the curly cows

Meet the curly cows keeping Heathrow wild

Clare Taylor

This handsome beast is one of the “Oreo cookie cows” helping nature to thrive in Heathrow’s little-known wildlife refuges.

The 12 stripy, curly-haired Belted Galloway cattle haven’t just been chosen for their distinctive looks, though. These cows are brilliant at maintaining wildlife habitats — and that’s all down to their eating habits.

Better than sheep

“Think of sheep as woolly lawnmowers who will graze pretty much everything down to a very short level,” says Adam Cheeseman, Heathrow’s Biodiversity and Local Community Manager.

“Cows are a more refined, selective tool. They are good at getting the vegetation down, but because they eat in a different way to sheep, you generally get a much better-quality pasture grow-back in future years.”

Grazing is good for wild flowers but stops vigorous plants such as brambles, thorns and nettles, from taking over.

It also prevents the build-up of dead material that can return nutrients to the ground. If too many nutrients enter the soil, it’s easier for scrub plants and coarser grass species to gain a foothold.

“Well-known open grassland areas, such as the North and South Downs and the Chilterns, are renowned for their excellent grassland wildflower habitats that were historically created by centuries of grazing,” says Adam. “So it makes sense that you’d use grazing to restore or create other wildflower meadows.”

What about all the poo?

Cows remove more nutrients by eating than they return to the soil though their waste, says Adam. And the manure itself is a micro-habitat used by many invertebrates and fungi as a temporary home.

Moo-ving on

The cattle visit Heathrow’s conservation spaces every autumn and will spend around 12 weeks grazing here. After that they’ll return to Surrey Wildlife Trust, which operates a conservation grazing scheme at a number of sites around the county.

Space for nature at Heathrow

You might not know it, but Heathrow has 13 areas set aside for nature conservation, covering an area the size of 80 football pitches. They’re currently home to over 3,000 species including grass snakes, soprano pipistrelle bats and vast numbers of flora, fauna and fungi. You can keep up to speed with the latest discoveries by following @HeathrowBio on Twitter.

Most of our biodiversity sites are closed to the general public, and that lack of disturbance is good news for many species that might otherwise be scared off by people.

Last year, Heathrow again won the Biodiversity Benchmark Award from The Wildlife Trusts for demonstrating continuous and beneficial wildlife management. We have now held the award for 10 years in a row.

Our work on biodiversity is part of the airport’s wider sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0. 


Heathrow 2.0

Our work on biodiversity is part of the airport’s wider sustainability strategy, Heathrow 2.0.

Fact file: Belted Galloway

  1. A heritage breed, originally from the windswept hills of Scotland. Their thick curly coats keep them warm and dry in winter.

  2. Nicknamed the ‘Oreo cow’ because the black-white-black stripes look a bit like chocolate-vanilla-chocolate cookies.

  3. Also known as ‘belties’ or ‘panda cows’.

  4. Naturally polled (born without horns) and generally good-tempered.

  5. Like to eat coarse grasses that other breeds would avoid.

  6. Known as a beef breed, though some are milked or even just kept to look impressive.

  7. Usually black with a white belt, but some are brown or red.