Definition

Conservation grazing is the management of habitat with the use of grazing livestock to encourage wildlife diversity.

Existing environment

Many of the existing terrestrial environments of Great Britain are man-made or semi natural. Centuries of forestry and agriculture including arable and livestock farming has resulted in a once heavily wooded isle becoming one with lush pasture and ploughed fields. Even the remaining wooded areas are affected in some way by human management, including coppicing or the introduction of non native species such as Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa). When left to natures’ devices, most open land within Great Britain regenerates back to woodland, which is not a bad thing. Mature woodland is an extremely valuable environment providing habitat for a vast diversity of wildlife. Young woodland and regenerating scrub areas on the other hand have less wildlife diversity than species rich grassland with hedgerow. So this is where conservationists believe that livestock grazing should be utilised. By preventing the natural regeneration of woodland and the spread of scrub species it is possible to ensure the continued succession of species rich grassland. To provide habitat for ground nesting birds, a rich food source for wildlife and a habitat for rare wild flower species. 

Natural regeneration

When pasture or arable land is left untended natural regeneration immediately ensues. Pioneer species including Birch (Betula pendula, Betula pubescens) which is often found on acidic soils, Elder (Sambucus nigra), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Bramble (Rubus fruticosus) and Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) may quickly establish.  Often a pre-existing Blackthorn hedgerow will spread by means of suckering, quickly encroaching on the grassland. Brambles quickly form large patches which provide shelter for tree saplings to grow, reducing the likelihood of livestock or wild deer, goats or rabbits browsing or killing these pioneer species. Given time, climax species such as Oak (Quercus robur, Quercus petraea) which grow slowly and tolerates shade will establish to form the canopy of a new woodland. However, Oaks will also establish simultaneously with pioneer species particularly if a mature specimen is nearby. The seed of pioneer species are easily spread by the wind or wild birds usually meaning they appear first on many sites.

The purpose of livestock in conservation grazing

To prevent natural regeneration and the spread of suckering species. 

By carefully managed grazing and browsing a varied and food rich habitat for wildlife including birds is maintained. Removal of long stalks, grass flower heads and hay encourages sappy short young growth from the base which is preferred by grazing wild ducks and geese.

Grazing to reduce the vegetative growth of prolific and competitive species will encourage smaller or less competitive species to grow, leading to greater diversity.

Grazing to encourage plants to tiller. Grasses re-sprout from the roots and spread over bare areas of earth, helping to prevent soil erosion on exposed sites.

Sheep, cattle, horses, ponies and goats can all be used. In some circumstances they can be utilised after hay making to clear up remaining material to prevent smothering of less competitive species, ensuring the continuation of plant diversity.

Pigs can be utilised to remove scrub and invasive weed species such as Bracken, providing a seed bed for greater plant diversity. 

Hedgerow and tree browsing and damage caused by leaning and rubbing can reduce the spread of hedgerow, suckers and tree canopies and therefore reduce the amount of shade cast.

Livestock naturally re-distribute fertility in their droppings.

Today’s intensive agriculture has greatly reduced the numbers of wild flower species that traditionally compose meadows and woodland edges. Conservation grazing is therefore an essential tool in the mean time to maximise the amount of species rich wild flower meadow in existence to ensure the survival of many wild species.

Over grazing and its effects 

Careful breed selection and a suitable stocking density for the environment are essential to prevent excessive grazing. Over grazing can lead to the decline of less vigorous and less competitive species reducing diversity. Livestock left to graze on land at a high stocking density or for longer than the site can sustain will lead to extremely short grass leading to deterioration of the pasture. In wet conditions soils can become compacted and poached. Compaction can lead to lying water which may further limit the plant diversity or restrict growth. Only the most aggressive species dominate in such environments and a high concentration of livestock parasites may result from prolonged or excessive stocking. Excessive grazing and browsing may also encourage excessive damage to tree foliage and bark as animals turn to them as another source of nutrition. The intensive agriculture of today has greatly reduced the numbers of wild flower species that traditionally compose meadows and woodland edges. Conservation grazing is therefore an essential tool in the mean time to maximise what little wild flower meadow may still exist to ensure the survival of many wild species.

Breed selection

There are 59 native sheep breeds and 27 native cattle breeds to choose from. When deciding on a breed, consider choosing a breed originating from your local area or utilised within similar environments to your own. In the case of extensive coastal marshes or on difficult or hard to reach terrain a primitive breed may be preferred for their independent nature, resilience to cold, exposed and wet sites and their greater resistance to foot rot and parasites. They are prized for their low management requirements, they can lamb unaided and some strains can moult their fleece naturally. When considering what species to use it is important to consider the facilities at the chosen location. Cattle require lots of fresh water so a mains supply may be essential. Sheep, particularly of the primitive type can escape easily through small holes in fencing or under or over fencing that is not sufficiently tensioned. Therefore well maintained mesh fencing is often essential. Rams and bulls are most obviously unpredictable so will be unsuitable where there are public rights of way. Dairy bulls and bulls on their own must not be placed in fields where there is a public right of way. Fields often walked by dog walkers may be unsuitable for sheep especially if dogs are not kept on a lead. Not everyone obeys signage. Animals with horns may prove dangerous or frighten those members of the public that do not have experience with animals, horns may also make some larger animals more difficult to safely handle. Many primitive breeds of sheep however, are often too timid to attack people and do not usually have enough weight or power to cause injury when butting at your legs! In fact, long horns are a useful means of catching and handling smaller sheep.

Useful by-products

Animals used in conservation grazing projects may be subject to higher welfare standards than conventional extensive systems. This is in part due to the varied and natural diet and the low intensity farming method practiced on conservation sites. As well as being of benefit to wildlife diversity, grazing stock is also valuable for the production of high quality meat and wool. The existing management, high welfare and natural diet of stock on conservation sites go hand in hand with Organic principles.  Therefore achieving Organic certification may be a worthwhile path to take to increase the value of your produce. The output on most conservation sites will be very limited but the produce may prove a valuable source of income and would aid in the promotion of the site if sold to local people.