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Of Grassland and Grazing Cattle for Wildlife

April 02, 2014

Trends in managing grass productivity and diversity for the benefit of conserved wildlife populations have recently, in a sense, turned to re-inventing the wheel in northern Kenya.  Historically, where vast herds grazed in open grasslands they performed a vital role as tillers and fertilizer’s of the prairie. On the African plain this in no different, save for the fact that the vast herds are fewer and fewer in our modern time. Cattle are starting to fill this gap to some degree, and preform these important tasks using systems of intensive grasing and close grouping, most commonly recognized in Allan Savory’s Holistic Grazing methodology.

Lewa has tested a number of methods for managing pasture quality in the past, including burning, cattle grazing and even mowing to stimulate grass production. For one reason or another, each has had its successes and its failures, but in the end the most promising approach appears to be managed grazing using cattle herds. Fortunately the buffalo population continues to grow and, in time, may contribute significantly to this process as well.

Cattle are no strangers on Lewa’s grassy downs, the Conservancy having evolved from a productive cattle ranch to a wildlife sanctuary in the early 90s.  Cattle in fact have never fully given way to wildlife on Lewa and today form a central part of community outreach projects via the NRT Cattle to Market programme. Cattle are kept in lion proof bomas at night, where they are concentrated, and their dung is trampled into the soil forming large highly re-nitrified “discs” in the grass. With each new rainy season these discs abound with fresh herb, forb and grass regrowth. During the day they are marshalled by Maasai herdsmen in tight groups that revolve within themselves as they move across the landscape. This intense process tills the surface, trampling unwanted dead vegetation while the cattle graze the grasses. All of which stimulates a more productive pasture and encourages wildlife to use areas previously not preferred.

This March, 10 of us including some of Lewa’s old hands, the Research Department's monitoring team and grassland expert Terri Shultz from The Nature Conservancy, spent a week walking through the bush on Lewa and its surrounding landscapes. We collected samples, chewed on leaves and grass stalks and swapped knowledge and ideas about everything around us. The aim was to flush out a concept between us and collectively devise a plan that will ensure that Lewa’s endangered and cherished species of wildlife have good fodder for the foreseeable future. We reviewed decades of work that has been done by experts and laymen alike, we argued and bullied each other’s opinions, and in the spirit of collaboration we drew out our understandings interrogated them until we found ourselves repeating common themes. In a final day of work-shopping all the insights and collected knowledge gathered between us we brought in more of the Lewa community and some of her neighbours to fashion a core synthesis. 

The essence of this revolves around maximizing the productivity of Lewa's grasslands once we have defined the nature of the conservancies expected biodiversity and potential for supporting increased densities of wildlife. Terri has taken this away for drafting into our first ever, comprehensive, grassland management plan. The plan will sit alongside the research departments monitoring and evaluation strategy, and the cattle grazing plan. It will form an integral part of maintaining Lewa as world leading wildlife habitat, capable of maintaining both endangered species and a representative African biodiversity, while still being relevant in the development and support of rural communities as conservation partners.