Epping Forest has tracts of designated land which are home to pit vipers, grass snakes and common lizards, as well as white admiral and purple swallowtail butterflies, and mammals such as shrews and voles which, at in turn, provide food for birds of prey and owls.
However, life for the cattle residents of the forest has not been so easy. Forestry staff have long struggled to keep livestock from wandering onto roads and nearby dual carriageways.
Today, at last, the cattle of Epping Forest know their place, thanks to satellite technology. The English Longhorn cows and calves that live in the ancient forest have recently been fitted with receivers – which look like cowbells – which can pick up GPS signals, which are then used to create virtual grazing areas for the animals.
If an animal approaches the edge of its bounded area, its cowbell detects the boundary and begins to emit a pitch-rising sound or eventually delivers a mild electrical pulse as the animal attempts to cross the boundary.
The technology means that forest cattle can pass their time in carefully selected locations without the need for barbed wire or electric fencing to stop them wandering the roads surrounding the former Royal Forest at the northern tip of London.
The system, pioneered by Norwegian company Nofence, has been adopted to control the herd of 66 animals that currently graze Epping Forest and help maintain the health of its 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) of grass and Of wood. Over the next few years, it is hoped that the system will allow forestry staff to increase the herd to around 150 animals.
“Large grazing animals like cows help create highly variable habitats,” said John Phillips, manager of pastures and forest landscapes. “They cut the grass and allow the little plants to grow. And keeping the grass short also helps animals, including reptiles and birds, find food.
Hundreds of cows and calves once grazed on the land under ancient rights granted to commoners, people who lived in a forest parish and owned at least half an acre of land.
By the end of the 19th century, these rights came under strain as land was fenced and housing estates developed. Protests began and the forest was eventually purchased by the City of London Corporation and stripped of its Royal Forest designation.
It was decreed that from then on Epping Forest would be “unenclosed and not built up as open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people”. (The right to gather timber in Epping Forest also survives although it is limited to “one bundle of dead or driftwood” per day per capita and is rarely exploited.)
Commoners were allowed to continue to graze cattle – although their numbers declined throughout the 20th century until the BSE crisis in 1996 led to their complete elimination from the forest.
Recently, cattle have been brought in, triggering the need for a new solution. As fencing was not permitted in Epping Forest, underground cables were first laid around the perimeter of the grazing areas and the cattle were fitted with tracking devices which gave them a mild electric shock when they tried to cross a cable.
“However, you had to dig up the cable every time you wanted to move the cattle to a new pasture area,” Phillips said. “Plus, you had to dig up the cables if they broke down or needed repair. We needed something more flexible.
The Nofence system avoids these problems, Phillips said. Its receivers relay the exact position, determined by GPS, of each animal in the forest. This data is then transmitted to applications on the forestry staff’s mobile phones. Using these devices, they can then mark off each animal’s grazing area on a digital map stored on their phone.
The animal’s cowbell senses if it is approaching the edge of its grazing area and emits sounds before administering a mild electrical pulse.
“The cow learns to associate the increased pitch with the prospect of receiving an electrical impulse – which is no stronger than what she would get from an electric fence,” said Synne Foss Budal, director general of Nofence UK. “As a result, it changes direction away from the border.
“We can monitor very precisely what a cow is doing this way. We see that he knows the difference between the first pitch and the last pitch of the sound emitted, and that he knows exactly when an impulse is going to arrive. So they time it. They turn around at the last second so they can make the most of the fresh grass at the edge of the border,” she said.
Importantly, these virtual grazing areas can be changed simply by changing their boundaries on a mobile phone app, Phillips said. “We can create a new virtual pasture by tagging it on a phone while creating a corridor that connects their old pasture to their new one. The animals will wander down the hall to their new pastures. There is no digging up cables or tearing down fences. This is perfect for Epping Forest.