Water buffalo have been released onto the East Anglian Fens in a unique conservation project.
Water buffalo roam on the fens
The Asian water buffalo have been brought in to keep grass and vegetation under control at Chippenham Fen, a national nature reserve in Cambridgeshire.
Conservationists turned to the animals because they needed a creature that would thrive in the sometimes soggy conditions. Four of the beasts have been drafted in to keep 40 acres of the wetland cropped short. Their presence means there is no longer any need for environmentally unfriendly mechanical mowers.
Hundreds of species of insects are also expected to thrive on the tussocks left behind by the buffalo.
The eight-year-old cow and three three-year-old steers are initially being kept in a two-acre enclosure while they become acclimatized to their new surroundings.
They were previously part of a herd in Cardigan Bay, Wales where the cows are used as dairy animals to produce mozzarella cheese.
If they prove successful, the herd at Chippenham will eventually be increased to up to 20.
Chippenham Fen assistant site manager Michael Taylor said: 'We decided to use Water Buffalo because they're suited to the environment and they are reasonably low maintenance.
'We need to keep the vegetation down because otherwise the area will eventually grow up and become woodland.
'In the very old days before the fens were drained there would be red deer and wild cattle grazing.
'Availability of these animals is a problem and Water Buffalo are very docile so there is no problem with visitors.'
Water buffalo originate in western Asia but are no stranger to English shores.
The first herd was introduced in the 13th Century by the Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III. They can thrive even if pasture is limited because they will graze on a wider range of plants than cattle.
In times of flooding they can also swim and tread water.
The Norfolk Broads Authority is running the national Grazing Animals Project and gave managers at Chippenham, near Newmarket, advice on which animals would be best.
Sue McQueen, assistant conservation officer for the Broads said: 'We knew they were interested in trying water buffalo as they are proven to be really good animals on watery sites, but they do need boundary fencing or they will swim over dykes.
'Ponies need a very high level of management and after all, water buffalo are just a more exotic form of cattle.
'We had nothing to do with their choice, but it makes sense.'
Chippenham Fen covers 250 acres of fenland close to the Cambridgeshire Suffolk border.
It is one of only a handful of sites which shows the fens as they were before they were drained and converted into highly fertile agricultural land.
by Duncan Milner