Regular visitors will know that, since 2002, the place to see water buffalo is The Welsh Wildlife Centre and Teifi Marshes. These gentle giants graze a boggy, damp marshy area of the Reserve from early spring until autumn.
Water buffalo are one of the world’s oldest livestock breeds. They originate from Asia, and were recorded in India and north Africa by around 600AD. They are an extremely durable hardy breed, and as their name suggests, their boxy hoofs and well distributed weight makes them well suited to grazing wet areas; be it steamy sodden Cambodian rice fields, or our own watery west Walian swamps.
In Asia they’re used to work in place of tractors, as a source of milk and ghee for cooking, for recreational riding and even racing! In the UK innovative farmers prize them for their meat, which is relatively low in saturated fats, their milk, thick, rich and creamy, ideal for mozzarella and ice-creams, and because they are well known for their ability to produce healthy strong calves.
When it comes to the wetland areas of Teifi Marshes, water buffalo are ideally suited to graze and keep the marsh healthy. Ponies had previously been utilised, but experience showed they were selective feeders, interested in only the lushest grass, so allowing scrub species, like bracken, rushes and brambles, to spread onto the marsh.
Cattle are less choosy; they feed by wrapping their strong mobile tongues around clumps of vegetation, and pulling it up as one to munch. But we found that cattle would avoid the wetter areas of the marsh, which made them of little use.
Water buffalo graze like cattle, using their tongues to pull up all and sundry, so preventing the march of unwanted scrubby species onto our marshes. They can use their horns to tear at bramble, nettle and young blackthorn, and their wide hooves and bulk to trample and supress bracken, so grazing and clearing areas inaccessible to other stock. To watch them hard at work is akin to witnessing our well drilled teams of committed volunteers, clearing scrub as it encroaches on our springtime bluebell beds. And the buffalo take fewer tea breaks and don’t ask for gloves.
Best of all the buffalo don’t only tolerate the wetter areas of the marsh, where wellies disappear into a sea of mush, they actively seek it out. In hot weather they love to wallow in mud, sometimes immersing themselves in ponds and creeks up to 7ft deep. In this way not only are they keeping the marsh clear of damaging invasive species, such as gorse, reedmace and willow carr, they keep pools and streams open.
Here they are actively creating and maintaining habitats favoured by many resident and migratory birds, also amphibians such as frogs and toads, and the huge population of damsel and dragonflies which Teifi Marshes supports. The wet areas maintained by the buffalo are vital to so many species, many of whom find living space hard to find in the over-drained, over-farmed industrialised countryside we’ll bequeath to our children.
Water buffalo are resistant to some of the diseases associated with wetter grazing areas, such as Red Water fever, which could potentially cause a problem for cattle. The number of buffalo we have on site between April and November each year varies, with somewhere between 5 to 10 each year.
Sometimes the summer is so wet the marsh becomes too flooded even for water buffalo, and they leave for drier climes before the autumn comes. Using small numbers to graze avoids damaging the land through over stocking. Accommodating too many heavy hooved stock, such as cattle and horses, poaches wet ground, compacting the soil, increasing water run off and soil erosion, and polluting watercourses.
Happily, given their size, water buffalo are generally intelligent docile creatures, who respond well to gentle handling. The use of water buffalo at Teifi Marshes is a great example of conservation grazing in action; benefitting wildlife, bringing in visitors to enjoy the Reserve, and promoting the benefits of low intensity grazing and diversification, for both conservation and farming.
Many thanks to Nathan Walton, Pembrokeshire Wildlife Trust Officer, for his kind assistance in preparing this article.
Howard Jones Ranger for Teifi Marshes