A Career in Conservation Grazing?
Ruth Dalton, Northern Field Officer, Rare Breeds Survival Trust
If you go down to the woods today…or to the moors, meadows or mosses, you may be surprised to find some large hairy herbivores quietly munching away at the vegetation. “Conservation grazing” is the term given to the use of livestock to restore or maintain rare habitats, and is on the increase in the UK. Some conservation organisations own and manage their own flocks and herds for the sole purpose of grazing, some work in partnership with graziers who provide livestock. “Conventional” farmers may include conservation grazing animals as part of their farm enterprise under government agri-environment schemes which encourage good stewardship of the land.
For someone interested in getting involved with this sort of work, volunteering or serving an apprenticeship with a farmer or grazier is vital if you don’t already have a background in livestock management. Most of the skills you will need are practical, and learnt by experience. It will help if you already have excellent observational skills, a good dose of common sense, and the ability to be calm and patient in a crisis.
It’s also important to be able to balance the needs of the animals with the requirements of the habitat being grazed. The main impacts of grazing animals are threefold: the removal of plant material through the actual grazing or browsing process; the nutrient enrichment of the soil through dunging and urination; and disturbance of the ground by trampling hooves. Undergrazing can result in the dominance of a few coarse species that are usually kept in check by grazing and the growth of unwanted scrub. Overgrazing can lead to desirable plant species being eliminated and so-called weed species increasing, often through the introduction of too many animals or the use of the wrong type of livestock.
It is useful to have basic plant identification skills and a knowledge of indicator species for different sites. As a conservation grazier you will be constantly assessing whether the target habitat requirements, in terms of sward length and diversity of species, are being met and there are many factors that can influence whether grazing animals will achieve your objectives.
Sheep are highly selective grazers, with small mouths able to pick the sweetest and most nutritious plant species from a sward. Their hooves are small and relatively light, compacting the ground. Evolved for a mountainous environment, they can suffer from foot problems and from the effects of flies in a lowland setting. However, appropriately managed, sheep can be useful animals, for example in heathland restoration where they can be summer grazed to reduce the expansion of scrub and promote heather growth, which they tend to eat only in winter. If managing sheep for conservation grazing, a well-trained dog can be very useful, and some conservation organisations have even purchased trained sheepdogs for their staff.
Cattle are perhaps more useful animals than sheep in terms of their impacts on vegetation - although they will avoid certain species, their large mouths make it harder for them to discriminate between preferred plants and less palatable ones. Well equipped to graze longer grasses and herbs, they create a variable sward structure benefiting a host of species. Their dung is also valuable for invertebrates and their heavy feet can break up compacted ground to provide seeding opportunities for plants. However, if grazed on wet ground or at high densities, cattle will poach the land and create bare patches that encourage weed growth. Cattle are less prone to dog attacks and health problems than sheep, but when something does go wrong they can be more problematic to deal with owing to their larger size.
Native ponies are hardy and exempt from much of the regulation that accompanies the keeping of farmed livestock. They have many of the benefits of cattle grazing when used at a similarly low stocking density and are naturally resistant to parasites and disease. They tend to create “latrine” areas which may cause localised enrichment of the soil so they are best used on large sites or for shorter periods of time. Like cattle, they will browse as well as graze and will not preferentially eat flowering heads of plants as sheep do.
Moving stock from site to site is an important part of conservation grazing. You will need to take additional qualifications if you are going to transport livestock over a certain distance (65km) and if you will be towing trailers above a certain weight if you passed your driving test after January 1997. Some employers will put you through this training, but it will be a plus point on your application if you have already done these tests.
Equally valuable are land-management skills such as using a chainsaw, fencing, hedge-laying and dry-stone walling. If you can do these jobs yourself, you will be a huge asset and save the additional expense of calling on contractors for smaller land-based tasks.
There is a considerable amount of paperwork involved if you are the owner or keeper of the livestock in your care, including registering births and completing movement licences and medicine records. Familiarise yourself with the basic requirements, and if possible gain experience of doing the paperwork yourself. You will need to be organised and methodical, you may undergo an official inspection and irregularities in ear-tagging or record-keeping will incur a fine if you or your employer claim environmental payments.
There is a tendency to use native breeds in conservation grazing. Before the 1950s, and the onset of the Common Agricultural Policy pushing farmers to produce maximum yields, livestock had been bred to grow and reproduce on relatively low inputs. A lack of affordable “concentrate” feed or artificial fertilizers meant that animals had to be thrifty and hardy and these attributes work in favour of the conservation land manager. Many of these traditional breeds are now classified as rare, so the opportunity to prove their usefulness as conservation grazers also secures their valuable genetics for future need. Having a basic understanding of breeds and their different qualities will definitely benefit your application.
There is also increasing interest from the farming community, as changing government policy makes extensive, low-input grazing systems with rare and native breeds a more viable option so you may find it’s possible to get valuable experience or even paid work working for a local farmer.
As a first step, consider going on a Conservation Grazing course, where you will be introduced to the principals behind design of grazing systems as well as being given a grounding in the legal framework that underpins your responsibilities as a stock owner or manager.
This article has been a whistle-stop tour of conservation grazing, merely touching on the complexities of managing sites using livestock. Every site manager has slightly different objectives, each group of stock is liable to behave in a slightly different way, every year the climate presents new challenges - there is no rulebook but plenty of people trying things out and sharing their knowledge (for more info take a look at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and Grazing Animals Project websites www.rbst.org.uk & www.grazinganimalsproject.org.uk). There is also an excellent on-line conservation grazing forum – “Nibblers” – run as a GoogleGroup, if you would like to join, please email email@example.com
First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Skills (traditional & modern) with Field Studies Council (FSC) on 23 May 2016