What is conservation grazing?
The term ‘conservation grazing’ is used a lot but what does it mean? Essentially it refers to the use of animals to manage landscapes, which can include grasslands, woodlands or even wetlands. The use of animals in this way partly mirrors the way that herbivores traditionally travelled through landscapes, grazing as they went. Of course, there were no fences so grazing would be very light in any one place, as the animals moved onto new pastures. The relationship between grazing animals and the land shaped our countryside over thousands if not millions of years. Some landscapes were left with scrubby woodland, some forested and some developed into grasslands.
Photo: Angus cattle
In industrialised times competition for land and land ownership boundaries have meant that modern herbivores such as cattle and sheep, are fenced in. This means that grazing becomes intense with trampling concentrated in small areas. This can have damaging effects on the diversity (richness) of species, but can also disrupt the balance of minerals and microorganisms even under the soil. We need to try and get back a balance in how we manage these landscapes.
But which animal is best to use??
There are many different types of livestock that may be used in conservation grazing and which are best depends on the objectives for that land and the type of land in question. Most commonly, different breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep or even ponies are used. Sheep have the advantage of being small and easy to keep. They are selective in what they eat so are useful when aiming to remove plants such as ragwort or nettles. Sheep have small mouths and can graze plants almost to ground level. On the other hand, cattle are not as selective and having large mouths and long tongues they tend to pull out tussocks of grass. This opens up grasslands and can be beneficial for species rich grasslands (such as the Deer Park!).
Pigs are useful for rooting ground, turning over the soil, but are not able to cover large areas. Ponies constantly graze as they do not ruminate, which can be useful in management and having small mouths, will graze close to the ground.
In the Deer Park, for this winter we have chosen a small number of Angus cattle, mostly due to the fact that they will be efficient at grazing long, large grasslands to create a mosaic of bare patches, open areas and grass tussocks. This mixture of areas is ideal habitat for ground breeding birds to nest and feed in come Spring and the tussocks provide protection and shelter from bad weather, as well as predators. The small number of animals should limit any damage to the site over winter.
Does it matter which breed of herbivore are used?
In most cases no, although generally it is better to use native breed species. Native breeds tend to cope better with winter conditions and are better adapted to challenging terrain in the winter (such as the hills and quarries of the Deer Park). Native breeds also tend to have fewer health concerns so these are generally easier to manage and will tolerate a small amount of winter weight loss as part of a natural process, as opposed to commercial breeds which require supplemented feeding to maintain weight over winter.
Management of grazing at the Deer Park, Selkirk
For the first winter of management as a species rich grassland, Angus cattle will be used to open up the long grasses ready for spring. A process of ‘adaptive management’ will be used, which is essentially a watch and wait strategy to adapt and learn the optimal way to manage the site going forwards. We may introduce sheep to take the grasses down to a short level ready for spring wildflower arrival.