Water buffalo are brought to Wales to save nature reserve

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A rare breed of Asian water buffalo has been imported into Wales in an attempt to prevent acres of countryside reverting back to the wild.

A rare breed of Asian water buffalo has been imported into Wales in an attempt to prevent acres of countryside reverting back to the wild.

Five of the beasts of burden are being used to graze a nature reserve near Cardigan in a pioneering scheme promoting environment-friendly management at one of Britain's richest habitats.

The water buffalo were selected for their unfussy eating habits - they eat the rougher gorse and reeds that other animals refuse to eat, helping to create a habitat in which other animals will flourish.

The results are promising. "We thought we'd give them a go," said Chris Lawrence, manager for the Wildlife Trust which runs the 107-hectare reserve. "They are striking beasts and it's quite a sight to see them in the early-morning mist."

The buffalo were called in after attempts to control the spread of poor quality land had failed. The problems began when the Wildlife Trust took over land that had been poorly grazed and was covered in scrub and bullrushes. Urgent action was needed for the reserve, which is on the border of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. The reserve, known as the Welsh Wildlife Centre, remains host to an astonishing range of species, including otters, grass snakes, lizards, butterflies, kingfishers and 11 species of bat. The vegetation includes oak woodlands, reed beds, fens and grassland marshes, while bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises have been spotted in the nearby Teifi estuary.

Horses were tried but were only interested in eating the lush grass rather than the unwanted scrub. Cattle fared a little better but still avoided the watery areas of the marsh.

Water buffalo, whose natural habitat is the rice paddies of South Asia, seemed built for the muddy, damp conditions and the trust arranged to take five animals on loan from a breeding centre. They have made an instant impression, using their horns to tear out the bramble and break up the scrub. "They seem to like having the tops of their heads scratched, which may be why they go into the brambles with their heads lowered," said Mr Lawrence.

The beasts are Asian river water buffalo, a descendent of the wild Indian water buffalo Bubalus arnee. Their formidable appearance - they weigh in at 1,000kg and sport thick, sweeping horns - is balanced by an even-tempered, though inquisitive, nature.

Although water buffalo hail from South Asia, where their natural habitat is the vast rice paddies, their appearance in Wales is not as bizarre as it may seem. They were introduced to Europe by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, and herds still survive in parts of Italy and Bulgaria.

Their stocky build and large padded hooves make them ideal for colonising marshy land and has another benefit: by wallowing in pools they create the perfect conditions for dragonflies, eels and frogs to flourish, all of which are popular foods for otters and herons.

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