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Habitat use by smooth snakes on lowland heath managed using 'conservation grazing'

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Heathland in the UK, and parts of mainland Europe, is being managed increasingly by landowners and statutory conservation bodies e.g., Natural England, using cattle grazing which is often referred to as 'conservation grazing' in an attempt to justify its use in the absence of any detailed prior research into its actual benefits for wildlife species whose individual habitat requirements are likely to vary. Over four years, between 2010 and 2013, cattle were excluded from six hectares of lowland heath that had been subject to annual summer cattle grazing between May 1997 and autumn 2009 and in which reptile numbers had been monitored annually since 1997. Changes in smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) numbers were recorded annually in the ungrazed area and in a four hectare area of heathland adjacent to it that continued to be grazed. The number of individual smooth snakes, and the total number of smooth snake captures, were significantly higher in the ungrazed heath than the grazed heath and were associated with increased habitat structure, resulting principally from tall heathers and grasses. The results of the study suggest that the use of cattle grazing as a management tool on lowland heath is detrimental to smooth snake populations and that their recovery, following the cessation of grazing, may take many years.
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Keywords: AGROSTIS CURTISII; CALLUNA VULGARIS; CATTLE GRAZING; CORONELLA AUSTRIACA; HABITAT DEGRADATION; HABITAT STRUCTURE; MOLINIA CAERULEA; ULEX MINOR

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2015

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