Panel Approves Equine Grazing on Protected Acres

April 17, 2023

The Conservation Commission last week endorsed a permitted use under the Huckins Farm conservation restriction that will increase grazing areas for horses, replacing some waterlogged grassland. There was no opposition expressed.

The Board of Trustees of the townhouse complex along the Dudley Road corridor labeled the proposal a “pasture management plan that helps us with the viability of the equestrian center, a key amenity of Huckins Farm.”

Jeffrey Summers, the town’s conservation administrator, told the commission that town counsel advised this was an approved activity under the Huckins Farm conservation restriction, as long as any fencing is outside pedestrian easements and wetland buffer zones.

“Loss of pasture has been precipitated by changes in the weather that we have experienced over the past few years,” explained Barbara Tate, a member of the Huckins Farm Standing Committee. “Wet and warm winters have led to significant deterioration of the three large pastures.”

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Some portions are currently standing water, she said. One area that they call Pickman pasture “has a large, deep pond.” Thus, horses “are not turned out into these pastures, and there’s not much we’ve been able to do to mitigate this.”

“In order to prevent overgrazing, we would like to include other areas that could be rotated in,” Tate said. It is hoped that the expansion will restore the grazing area to the original 14 fenced acres. Currently, about 11 acres are usable, she said.

The sponsors have been working on this plan for about three months, Tate said, noting that horses are scheduled to return to pastures in May.

The additional areas were identified through a collaborative effort involving the Huckins Farm leadership and Churchill Stables, which operates the equestrian center part of the complex. “Our partner Churchill Stables will help us maintain this and will be bearing the cost,” said Tate.

Tate said the expanded areas would be enclosed by temporary removable wooden fencing, with no cement fixtures. During the day, that would be reinforced by a parallel solar-powered electric fence to keep the horses from leaning on the wood. Tate said contact with the electric fence does not harm horses, and the fencing is high enough so that small wildlife can run beneath it.

“Pasture rotation is a basic agricultural practice,” Tate said. The board has consulted experts, including from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Extension Service, to develop the proposal, which “allows areas to be grazed while other areas are rested.”

“It’s very difficult to graze or mow if soil is very wet,” Tate explained. “We want to make sure we can allow rotation so we can move into pastures and move out when some are not acceptable for grazing.” The unused fields can develop “good root growth and keep the weeds at bay,” she added.

Commission member Frank Richichi asked about the impact if some of the affected grassland may eventually require reclassification to wetland. Tate said if there has been continuous grazing in a wetland area, it can legally remain. “But it’s not great grazing area.”

Specifically, the plan proposes six areas, the most visible of which is at the corner of North and Dudley Roads. “That’s what everybody sees when they first come in,” Tate said. Although she hopes for a return to “a green, pristine look, our barn manager said I may have to sacrifice that front part” because of the water retention. 

Another area is at the north extremity of the Huckins Farm complex, which she called Hidden Meadow. “It hasn’t been used in a few years, and we would like to refence it.”

“Horses will be rotated in these areas, between dirt paddocks” at the equestrian center, “parts of existing pastures, and new areas,” Tate explained.

[Editor’s Note: Little Acres, part of an adjacent property, was originally mentioned. Hidden Meadow is the corrected area. The article was corrected on 04/18/2023.]

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