The resurgence of traditional countryside management methods, reasons and benefits
The landscape of today is very different to that of the recent past. Bags of black-polythene silage are commonplace across the farms in the spring. This was not always the case, haystacks and haylofts were once widespread. Unlike silage, the hay cutting regime takes place in the autumn, thus allowing plants to set seed, ensuring a new crop, with wild flowers, for the next season. Ground-nesting birds are also able to fledge their young before the thresher reaches them.
Use of the traditional scythe to cut the hay avoids compaction of soils by heavy machinery, which could also be alleviated by strimmers, but these use fuel, sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
To promote wildflower grasslands, wetlands, moorland and coastal grasslands, some manner of vegetation removal is required.
Conservation grazing has been utilised in recent years, such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s mobile ‘flying flock’ of sheep.
Grazing animals do not begin at point A and chew the vegetation down until reaching point Z. Quite what they will graze depends on a number of aspects; for example, which plants you actually want chomped depends on what animal finds them palatable. So, when sheep were introduced to Traprain Law in East Lothian, they head to the succulent grass at the hilltop, leaving the tough rank species that were causing the problem. Enter the ponies!
Food palatability is not the only aspect that drives movement and grazing behaviour. Animals also require drinking water, shelter and shade. Although many may emphasize the environmental part of agri-environment, such as keeping woodland copses and protecting hedgerows, these also serve to nurture livestock for agricultural benefit.
Even with the right species and ancillary features, your livestock may still not graze where you desire. This can be remedied by the ancient practice of (conservation) shepherding. Rather than letting loose the organic lawnmowers, this time the shepherd uses his crook and dog to direct the sheep towards certain areas of the site and away from the more sensitive.
Nature and Farming
Pesticides have been a health concern for some time prompting many consumers to switch to organic food. Pesticides also have environmental effects. Killing off bugs indiscriminately gets rid of predators, such as ladybirds, if you are not careful. And when the pests return, there is inevitably a lag for the predators to return, resulting in even heavier damage. As an example, the boll weevil was a major pest of cotton; when this was sprayed off, it was found that it was actually keeping down another three pests. Double the dosage and these disappear but five more pests appeared. This continued until unsustainable amounts of pesticide were required.
The answer, then, is to increase areas for predators. Forward-thinking agriculturalists have tried to use nature by providing small areas for these beneficial organisms in the shape of beetle banks (in reality, spider-dominated) and conservation headlands. However, we can go further by invoking the past and using minimum-till systems. Just like the landscapes of old, we can have a return to the arable weeds hosting breeding grounds for birds, moths and other predators.
Minimum-till has added soil benefits too. Regular turning of soil destroys structure so important for soil moisture penetration, as well as promoting microbes to release greenhouse gases. Nutrients are also released, whilst erosion has been deemed as a factor for the UK government to suggest there are only around 30 years left of harvest without conservation. By keeping the soil intact, structure remains, as well as giving a home for agricultural predators. Not only do we keep the nutrients within the soil but by intercropping leguminous plants, we can actually add in extra nitrogen for less effort.
One aspect is to consider why people undertake voluntary conservation. For some it may be to gain skills to enter the job market. For others, it’s a long-term commitment. It would seem apparent then that the more someone works in voluntary conservation, the more connected they became with nature. Research at SRUC by McCallum (2018) says the opposite. A desire to help wildlife may bring volunteers in but what keeps them is the sense of community. Compare the isolation of strimming in a helmet with ear-protection against building a hedgerow as part of a team. Far more rewarding.
Cultural heritage and health
It may seem as though the UK sees less importance in natural capital. Actually, conservation is becoming more valued, if not better funded. The Scottish government has set green targets to promote health and well-being. Local authorities have a duty to encourage understanding of the environment through recreation, such as green gyms. Using traditional duties, such as coppicing, willow-weaving and creating hedgerows, participants are able to understand their place in our landscape. Communities can appreciate cultural heritage by recognising that bogs and machair are there, not through simple abiotic processes, but because they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors.
By linking to our past, we can invoke techniques that protect our countryside, whilst enhancing our connection with history and creating a community for our volunteers.
Dr Chris Smillie: Programme Leader: MSc Countryside Management