The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

3 Feb 2020
  Recreating Historical Land Use - Wood Pasture with Heck Cattle and Exmoor Ponies

Wood pasture was a way of using the resources of deciduous or sometimes mixed coniferous forests since settlements developed in wooded areas, and it lasted in parts until the 18th century. Forests that grew out of those old grazing sites are still around. They show some distinct features, and some have been recreated.

Hutewald in the Solling

Among them is the Hutewald Project in the Nature Park Solling-Vogler. The area of 170 hectares is situated near Nienover (Lower Saxony) and is used for wood pasture since 2000. There had been a former Hutewald – the German word for forest pasture – before, so the old oaks made for a good basis. Now, Heck cattle (see below) and Exmoor Ponies are used to keep the undergrowth in check.

Oak trees

Driving cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses, into the woods for grazing on saplings, shrubs, mushrooms and fruits, and getting fattened on acorns and beech nuts, has been a first step to cultivation of wildland since prehistoric times. It was already common around the Mediterranean of Antiquity as well as in central Europe during the migration period.

In the forest

Fewer saplings that grow to a size where the cattle could no longer reach the shots meant that the forest turned into an open woodland when old trees died. Oak fared better as pasture forest than beech, since beech saplings grow slowly under the shelter of their mother tree and thus remain within grazing reach; oak shots grow faster and turn bitter, so some escaped the hungry mouths of the cattle. Over time, the herbaceous plants were pushed back in favour of ground vegetation that needed light, and thus increased the quality of the grazing material.

Sunlight on leaves

The trees also offered shelter for the animals. The forests not only served as pasture; they also provided timber for fuel, charcoal making and construction, often by coppicing (cutting the tree close to the root to grow several separate stems) or pollarding (pruning the crown to restrict the growth and get a denser crown). Some trees were allowed to grow to the full splendour of their height and crown, though. They provided nutrients and shade.

Tree crowns

Long term use of forests for pasture led to a blurred line between open woodlands and meadows with some trees (Huteweide in German). The latter not only included oak and other broadleaf trees, but also fruit bearing trees like apple or cherry trees that were planted by humans.

The Hutewald project in the Solling presents both types of woodland pasture. There are some marked ways for hiking, but to enter the forest proper you need to attend a tour guided by a ranger.

Meadow with brook

Wood pasture increased considerably in the 12th century and encompassed large forest areas between the settlements and fields. Even though most of the forests belonged to the nobility or the church, who had the right of the high hunt and drew income from the use of the forest, the right of pasture and pannage was given to the local farmers, together with the right of gathering wood debris as firewood.

Alder grove

Pannage depended on the amount of acorns and beech nuts a forest would produce; there are three year cycles for beech nuts, for example. Other trees like maple or linden were often felled to make space for more oak and beech. Since pigs were the main provider of meat for the non-nobility, the quality of pannage was important for the overall value of a forest.

Cattle and horse pasture was seasonal. The animals would be driven into the forests for two months in early summer, after they had grazed off the open meadows, so those could regrow. The regrown grass then was cut and used as winter hay. The animals returned to the meadows in autumn.

Clearing, overgrown with saplings and herbaceous vegetation

During the late Middle Ages, meadow grazing became more common and the forests were mostly used for pannage of pigs. But wood pasture increased again after the Thirty Years War when large swathes of settled land were abandoned (Wüstungen). Increasing demand of timber caused a decline in silvopasture forests since the later 17th century. The remaining trees either were felled, or the woods were reforested to grow more timber. Changes in animal husbandry (larger breeds of cattle, f.e.) and agriculture that led to the abandonment of wood pasture during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Another clearing

In some cases, the process was reverted again, though. In areas where the meadows and fields had been overgrazed, oak forests suitable for pasture were planted which would serve both for grazing and timber industry. But pasture combined with wood cutting led to a decrease in the use of such forests again. Some have been allowed to revert to ‘jungle’, like the the Urwald’ at the Sababurg / Reinhardswald that exists since 1907.

One of the hiking trails in the Hutewald

It takes some 16 to 30 cattle or 100-200 pigs per 100 hectares to browse for several years to create a typical open forest. Maintaining that status works better with less animals, though.

The oaks in the Solling have been planted in clusters of 9x9 metres some 200 years ago. Today, the animals amount to about 20 Heck cattle and 20 Exmoor ponies on 170 hectares. That number proved to be most suitable to establish a light forest with a surprising biodiversity – 580 various species of animals, insects, plants and funghi listed in the Red List can be found today.

Lovely green

It is assumed that open forests may have been around before human settlement in some parts. Large herbivores like aurochs, European bison (Wisent), moose or wild horse may have influenced the development of the primary forests in a similar way. Moose and bison are no longer around in Germany, but a race that works well in recreated pasture forests are Heck cattle rebreeds. Modern milk cows would not thrive on the rougher fare.

Heckrinder - Heck Cattle

Heck cattle started as a dream. In the 1920ies, the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck wanted to recreate the extinct aurochs. Heinz was the director of the Berlin Zoological Gardens, Lutz held the same position in the Hellabrun Zoological Gardens Munich. They both started their own rebreeding programs, using Alpine brown cattle, Hungarian Grey, Angel cattle, Corsican cattle and some other races which seemed to best represent the traits of aurochs. Lutz Heck also used Spanish fighting bulls, but since the Berlin line died out after WW2, the breeds we got today are descendants of the Munich line.

Out of the trees

The pseudo-‘aurochs’ got popular with the leaders of the Third Reich. Hermann Göring had a bunch of the Berlin line released into his hunting reserves in the Schorfheide in 1938, and returned more into the wild in Białowieża, Poland, in 1941. He wanted to transform northern Poland into a genuine German jungle with genuine German beasts. 20,000 Poles were forcefully relocated, several hundred died. No wonder they killed evey single ‘German’ cattle after the war.

Facing the intruders

What the Heck brothers got were not true aurochs rebreeds, of course, but a hardy race of domestic cattle than can cope with nutrient-poor fare and stay outside in winter, albeit they are not the only race capable of surviving such conditions. Heck cattle is today considered an official domestic breed.

Post war efforts to improve the Heck cattle also included Upland red cattle (Harzer Höhenvieh) and the Ankole Watusi from Rwanda. The various cross-breedings resulted in a rather diverse look of the Heck cattle lines in colour, size and proportion, or the shape of the horns.

Not so sure about those humans

Heck cattle are 20-30 cm shorter than the extinct aurochs; bulls average 4’5’’ (140 cm) with a weight of 1.300 lb (600 kg), females are about 4’3’’ (130 cm). That is not larger than some other domesitic breeds. An aurochs bull could tower at close to 2 metres and weigh a ton.

The aurochs had a more athletic shape with a high withers; Heck cattle are bulkier – like modern breeds – and with a flat back. The head is smaller and the shoulder musculature therefore less well developed than that of the aurochs. The brown and reddish colours – sometimes even with a dorsal stripe – dominant in Heck cattle, are the feature that comes closest to the aurochs. (Neverthless, some lighter shades can be found with Heck cattle as well.)

The horns are somewhat different, too. Aurochs horns grew outward and upward from the base, then forward and inward, at last upward again at the tips. They could be up to 100 cm in length. Heck cattle presents different horn shapes, but they are usually shorter and curve too much upwards and/or outwards (like Highland cattle).

Checking on the family

The cattle are kept in natural herds; excess oxen are slaughtered in autumn, their high quality beef is sold locally.

Besides the Heck cattle, other animals to graze in the Hutewald in the Solling are Exmoor ponies. They are a hardy outdoor race native to the British Isles, recently often used for projects like this. Not to mention very cute. *smile*

Exmoor Ponies

Some Exmoor ponies still live semi-feral in the moorlands of Devon and Somerset, but they are classified as ‘endangered’. Ponies in Exmoor have been around since the 11th century at least (the Domesday Book mentions them), but probably longer. They came into the fore of interest when a privat buyer bought the Royal Exmoor Forest in 1818. The warden, Sir Thomas Acland, brought 30 ponies to his private lands. They became the nucleus of the modern breed; descendants of the first herd still live at Winsford Hill.

The rest of the ponies in Exmoor were sold, though some luckily ended up with local people who took care of their blood line, so some Exmoor ponies are still around on the moorlands.

Mare with foal

In 1921, the Exmoor Pony Society was founded. Its aim was to maintain the pure Exmoor breed. They suffered a severe setback during WW2, though. The moors were used as training ground, which caused the breed to become almost extinct. Only 50 ponies survived the war. By the 1990is, enough ponies had been born to spread them to various areas of England in small herds. And a few moved to other countries, like the herd that now lives in the Hutewald in the Solling. By 2010, the world wide stock was estimated to be about 800 animals.


Exmoor ponies come in a size range of 45-50 inches (11.1 to 12.3 hands, or 114-130 cm), with the stallions usually being a bit taller than the mares. Their coats are variants of dark bay, with pangaré markings around the muzzles, eyes, flanks and underbelly – those are considered a primitive trait, as is the head which is somewhat large in proportion to the body.

The ponies have a stocky build with short legs, deep chest and broad back; they are strong for their size, and known for their endurance. They grow a winter coat of an insulating wooly underlayer and an oily topcoat. They had shed that one when I visited the Hutewald.

Pony family

The photos in this post were taken during two tours, a private hiking tour on the official ways, and one guided by a ranger that brought us directly into the forests.

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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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