The craze for conservation grazing


When you walk a landscape often, seeing it change through the seasons, you become protective of its wild nature, hoping that the things you especially like remain safe. It can be challenging, even accepting the disturbance that wild nature throws at it, but recognising that as the change that is the dynamism of wild systems. Unnecessary and damaging change can, however, be infuriating. This is the case for a local landscape that I have walked many times, and which is highly valued by the community I live in.

Bugle is one of the woodland species that I watch out for in this landscape as it doesn't seem to like disturbance. When a hawthorn cracked and fell over a patch of bugle at the edge of Willy Wood a few years ago, I was sorely tempted to remove some or all of the branches, but I left it and watched as the bugle died out under the fallen tree. My instinct was right though, as the bugle spread away from the fallen tree and developed into a larger patch.

I have seen bugle lost in recent years from the western end of Hawksworth Spring, a larger adjacent ancient woodland that is intermittently grazed, and where cattle have already "trodden out" the bluebells, dog’s mercury, wood anemone, wild garlic and ferns. These woodland plants barely remain in refuge around the base of the larger trees or where the cows cannot squeeze, but they can be seen to gloriously carpet the ungrazed, eastern half of the wood.

The large patch of bugle at the edge of Willy Wood could also have been at risk from trampling, but the stock use has always been light next to this woodland, in the unimproved grassland that borders it with its scattered trees and scrub. This somewhat unusual remnant of farmland with high natural value is rare, and owes its character to ownership by mill owners who have no great interest in farming. However, a new lessee of the land from late last year brought in a herd of 40 or so ponies (destined probably for pet food) and maintained them there over the winter, a poor land management practice that good farmers would shun. Even in spite of supplemental feeding, the grazing pressure from so many animals extended wherever the hungry ponies could explore, turning what was a well walked and pleasant landscape into a desert of overgrazing, bare earth and extensive trampling.

The large patch of bugle was trashed by the heavy hooves; a lot of structural damage was done in an open part of woodland through clearance of bramble undergrowth that roe deer rely on during the winter; and a wet grassland bank that backs onto Willy Wood is also trashed where there are good numbers of common spotted orchids, ragged robin, meadow sweet, greater burnet and greater birds-foot trefoil, with masses of devil's bit scabious and betony around its edge. This wet, seepage area is usually a flowering delight over many months. I'm just not confident that the wildflowers will come through well from this unnecessary damage.

Complaints were received by the Parish Council, and were forwarded to the land owners and to the District Council, alerting them to the damage that was being done to these woodland and grassland areas, designated locally as Sites of Ecological and Geological Importance. Two welfare inspections of the ponies were carried out, the state of public footpaths was raised, and the landowner was encouraged into erecting additional fencing to ensure that the ponies didn’t get in to the eastern end of Hawksworth Spring Wood. It would be unbearable if they were to trash the exceptional quality of the woodland groundlayer in this ungrazed section of the ancient woodland.

Private land owners can pretty much do what they want, even where national protected area designations prevail. It’s a rare moment when say Natural England uses its powers to fine a farmer for overgrazing (1). On the contrary, their management prescription for virtually every protected area is to reintroduce a grazing pressure, or ramp it up if they think there is undergrazing. Here from their guide entitled The importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation (2):
“Livestock grazing is essential for the management of many of England’s most important wildlife habitats. Grassland, heathland, wood pasture, floodplain and coastal marshes all require some grazing to maintain the structure and composition upon which a variety of plants and animals depend for their survival”

Lets just tease out why this is regarded as “essential”, again using their words (3):
”Most of our ‘natural’ heritage is, in fact, semi-natural in the sense that it is made up of collections of native plant and animal species which, over thousands of years, have adapted to man’s farming activities, including grazing. These communities are now reliant on man’s continuing management of their habitats if they are to survive”

It is an orthodoxy gone mad when our nature conservation is seemingly based on a narrow, Arcadian vision of enclosed farming landscapes from the Victorian era to the 1930s. So it is that grazing is the craze in “nature conservation”, and where it bites most is where land in public ownership all over England is having grazing re-applied when the burden of farming use was taken off many years ago.

I find it sad that our children will grow up thinking cattle are wild animals. They will see landscapes that are derived from farming, even though that is not what the land is being used for, nor will it be described as farmland since these are “nature reserves”. It is a strange world where Natural England can routinely use a farming subsidy to re-instate the farming pressure of cattle grazing on the landscape, when that farming subsidy, Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), is supposedly about mitigating the effects of farming. One recent example amongst many, is on the publicly owned Beacon nature reserve near Bodmin in Cornwall (4).

The nonsense just keeps on coming

Bristol City Council have fallen victim to the ideology of the conservation professionals in their proposal to introduce feral goats to the Avon Gorge. We are told by the local newspaper that (5):
"The proposals have been drawn up with advice and guidance from national experts and conservation organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, Natural England and the University of Bristol”

Such a weight of “expert” advice, but which comes in for ridiculing in the comments after the article. The reintroduction of grazing after a break of 30-40 years on the Scilly Isles was recently condemned as “nothing less than vandalism” (6) but Julie Love, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, confirms the basis of the ideology when describing the history of the landscape (7):
"It's completely manmade – in the past, people would have cleared it and farmed the fields. On these headlands, which are too windy for crops, they'd have put animals out for grazing. So every inch of Scilly was used in the past for some kind of farming activity”

Now those headlands, where farming had ceased and where the land was recovering some wilder attributes, has a fake farming re-imposed, funded by a wad of HLS money from Natural England. Nature conservation killing all the wildness as usual.

It is hard for local people to challenge this slavish orthodoxy, and when they do they are usually brushed aside. But what I constantly hear is that there is no monitoring of the impact of grazing, and little evident success in these “restoration” projects compared to what the “experts” said would happen. The ideology is becoming a myth. Take the National Trust’s application to enfence Longmoor Common in the Lake District and re-impose cattle grazing. We get a measure of the National Trust’s lazy contempt of local opinion in the decision letter from the Planning Inspectorate (8). It notes that there were 11 objections to the fencing and grazing, which included this point:
“Cattle will damage the wet and marshy areas of the moor. When this happens the soft rush will become dominant. Orchids and Marsh Fritillary will be two of the many casualties of this proposal along with the birds which nest and hunt on the moor. Voles, mice etc would disappear and the barn owls that hunt them would follow”

This reads like it came from someone with a good, local knowledge of the common, and who feared for the effects of the trampling and grazing. Just as damning was the accusation that:
“No independent habitat or species survey of the moor, which would be a pre-requisite to baseline the experiment (to improve the common for butterflies), has so far been undertaken”

In their response to the Inspectorate about these objections, the National Trust just reasserted the myths about grazing, without committing to do any survey or monitoring, nor did they responded to concerns raised by Ennerdale and Kinniside Parish Council about the amount of water held on the common; about the potential for grazing with cattle to lead to poaching; or that the natural habitat of the native animals would deteriorate.

We cannot expect the Planning Inspectorate to be intuitive about the dogmas in contemporary nature conservation – their recourse is to a reliance on the “experts”. In rendering their decision of accepting the application, they thus appeared satisfied that the proposals are supported by Butterfly Conservation and Natural England”. There’s that butterfly lot again, whose ubiquity nowadays in these “conservation” schemes shows them to be hell bent on ensuring that the whole of Britain is “gardened” for butterflies (see, for instance (9)).

Even woodland is not safe from conservation grazing

Plantlife, a wildplant conservation charity, has some way to go in matching the ubiquity of Butterfly Conservation, but an editorial and article last autumn in their membership magazine placed them squarely in another, developing conservation dogma - the conservation grazing of woodland to supposedly increase its biodiversity. For Dr Jenny Duckworth, woodlands were to be treated just like everything else (10):
"Grazing is an important means of maintaining woodland and biodiversity but sustaining the right levels can be difficult. Too much grazing can decimate the ground flora, whilst too little results in overgrown and shaded woodlands, a problem that has developed as formerly grazed woods have been fenced off"

Thankfully, one Plantlife member wrote in objecting to the lack of consideration given to the woodland species that depend on woodland interior habitat (11):
“Two of our rarest, Bechstein’s bats and barabastelle, are almost totally dependent on undisturbed, non-intervention oak woodlands with a dense understorey for their nursery roosts”

Woodland on farms has always been a potential refuge for livestock, especially during winter, and the browse and some grazing there is a useful supplement, especially in the North. However, this thing about grazing woodland as a conservation measure for increasing biodiversity is another dangling dogma, based on the premise that an exploitative grazing of woodland created the biodiversity in the first place, and that to retain those species dependant on that type of use, fake farming has to be reintroduced to manage the "neglected" woodland. That is the stance taken in the guidance on grazing woodland from the Forestry Commission (12). However, in a startling conclusion to the guidance it says:
“Currently the use of domestic stock to enhance/restore habitats is mainly limited to open heath and grassland areas. Few sites have investigated or monitored the use of domestic stock in woodlands”

It recommends that formal trials should be initiated to consider the impacts of grazing and trampling on sensitive plant communities, and on invertebrate, bird and small mammal populations – base mapping these species and monitoring yearly. Four years after that guidance, the Forestry Commission released a report in 2003 containing a survey of cattle-grazed woodland in Britain. The report talks of the perceived benefits for biodiversity from grazing woodland, and cites the paucity of published studies of the impact of cattle on woodlands in Britain and in other countries as the reason for the inventory (13). Despite collecting data from 105 sites, and visiting 33 of them, the report provides little evidence to substantiate any claim about the benefits of cattle grazing. It notes that:
“There was a lack of control areas at any of the sites in this survey. Suitable control areas would be areas of similar size to the cattle grazed woodland with similar vegetation type and structure, and with a similar past history, but that received no cattle grazing. The lack of suitable controls meant that it was impossible to differentiate between the impacts of cattle and those of other large herbivores. Similarly, there were no sites where different cattle grazing regimes had been applied to otherwise similar woodlands. Setting up control areas, or areas with different cattle grazing regimes, would greatly increase the value of any data collected. Targeted experiments are likely to be needed to discover whether cattle, at low densities, can encourage tree regeneration”

Time has moved on since that report, and there may be studies ongoing, yet to be reported, but there is still no substantive evidence on the impact of cattle grazing on woodland. There is, however, a tangential claim that cattle grazing can drive woodland regeneration. The “Vera hypothesis” of large herbivores as a natural shaping force in landscapes was a gift to the conservation industry, as it appeared to validate their approach to nature conservation. It’s an hypothesis full of holes (see (14)), but that hasn’t stopped it from having an influence.

I recently spent some days in the Ennerdale Valley in the Lake District, only a few miles from Longmoor Common (see earlier). I was there with students on a field trip to the Wild Ennerdale Project, a main promotional point for the project in this valley of extensive plantation woodland being a lessening of human impact and an encouragement of natural process. Galloway cattle have been introduced into an area of the valley that has had the forest plantation thinned out, and which extends up onto the fell. The rationale is that the grazing and trampling of large herbivores is a natural process that was missing from the valley woodland, and which would reshape it through grazing, and the physical disruption of the ground layer would open it up for seeding (15). However, an obvious alternative to cattle would be wild boar if ground disturbance was the main natural process that was sought for reintroduction to the valley.

I watched the cattle over a couple of days, and it seemed to me that all they are doing is turning the plantation woodland into wood pasture. The few native tree saplings, severely affected by grazing, were obviously present before the cattle were brought in. The cattle have cleared through any undergrowth such that there isn’t any brambles there to act as protection for new tree seedlings against grazing, a primary basis of the Vera theory. The cattle didn’t seem to browse the plantation conifers or their seedlings (red cedar, larch, spruce) to the same extent as the native trees. The likely outcome is therefore that the cattle will effectively select for a landscape filled with regenerating plantation conifers, returning it back to square one.

There are some small, fenced exclosures inside the thinned woodland, and out on the cleared, open fell, and all of these are rammed with advance native regeneration of mostly birch and rowan, and were lush with heather. The ground inside these exclosures obviously didn't need physical disruption or close grazing for the new trees to seed into, whether or not this seeding in was prior to exclosure by fencing. It is thus pretty much a situation of the "Emperor with no clothes" in this grazing being able to reshape the valley, when set against what is going on in the exclosures.

What reshaping are they hoping to get?

The behaviour of the Galloways and how they use the landscape is being tracked by radio-collar, giving location, local temperature and whether the cow's head is up or down, but it is questionable what this data will prove when there is no external influence on their behaviour. Consider that in a truly natural process, their movement would be modified by the presence of the larger predators. Thus there would be areas where the herbivore pressure would be reduced or non-existent such as around areas of wolf dens; because of the presence of lynx; and in riparian corridors where they are open to attack etc. The project also seems content to focus on the cattle and without any regard to the native herbivore pressure present in the valley from roe and red deer. They haven't also learnt the lessons of how cattle reintroduced into landscapes with a more developed shrub layer use it entirely differently, keeping to tracks and grazing off from them.

I think there is a counter argument to be made to this craze for grazing woodland with cattle. If cattle are a synthetic analogue for the natural herbivore pressure that is said to be missing, then exclosing cattle out of some woodland areas is the logical synthetic analogue of large predators in producing the behaviour modification that would have existed in their presence.

There has been a historical reduction of sheep numbers in the Ennerdale valley that has led over the last 20 years to a substantial regeneration of trees and shrubs in the flattish river corridor of the valley. This happened before the Wild Ennerdale project was set up and thus is tangible evidence of what will happen when farming pressures on landscape are reduced. The River Liza itself has a considerable disruptive power on the landscape as it floods and frequently moves its course, washing away soil and rocks as well pushing over trees and shrubs. What this re-vegetated riparian corridor offers, apart from the demonstration of natural disturbance, is a testing example for our notion of what a future natural state for our landscapes would look like. Because of the decades of conifer plantation in the valley, the seed load for the non-native conifers is high. Thus the scrub is made up of larch and spruce, a few Western red cedar, as well as birch, willow and rowan, plus areas of gorse. It’s a strange mix, only varied by the disruptive power of the river. We may have to become comfortable with these mixtures in this particular landscape as it will be hard to eradicate all the introduced species.

As a contrast to the plantation conifers of the central valley slopes, there is a band of broadleafed ancient woodland rising up from the south bank of Ennerdale Lake. Side Wood is part of a large SSSI that takes in much of the valley side. It is described in the notification as "one of the best known examples of altitudinal succession in England" (16). I find this disingenuous. The grading from woodland into the scrubby trees and shrubs of the sub-montane heath is massively influenced by sheep grazing, as is the woodland itself. I was able to tell this because there is a division of the woodland by fencing that allows you to see the contrast between the grazed woods and the sub-montane heath above on one side (owned by the National Trust), and the ungrazed landscape on the other (owned by the Forestry Commission). The two are very different - the ground layer in the grazed wood is flat, lacks variety and has no young tree saplings, except that its SSSI notification says that it is "one of the best examples of an upland birch Betula pubescens – sessile oak Quercus petraea woodland in West Cumbria" Yes, it does have a "luxuriant ground carpet of bryophytes" but a recent NVC survey of the woodland confirms that it is desperately poor in tree diversity, with a very small number of oak trees, and not much ash, rowan and hawthorn (17).

I am very worried about the prominence given to bryophytes in woodland conservation - this woodland is classified in the NVC as as W17b oak, birch, and dicranum moss. A lot of the pressure from conservationists to graze woods comes from this focus on bryophytes because they flourish well in the absence of any shrub layer (18). Yes, the contrast with the ungrazed wood shows that it has a luxuriant growth of bilberry such that it crowds and reduces the prominence of the mosses compared to the grazed wood, but the mosses are still there, especially since these are rocky woodlands! Why should there be a concentration on one component to the exclusion of others?

The SSSI monitoring picks up the lack of understorey, notes that the lack of regeneration is a major issue, and rates the woodland as overgrazed - unfavourable no change (Unit 2 (19)). It also notes that there are "a number of severely topiaried hawthorns" along the top edge of the wood. I can tell you pretty much everything there is topiaried, with little evidence of scrubby regeneration and very much a chewed-up dwarf shrub heath. This is not an attitudinal succession in its normal meaning! However, immediately across the fence, in the ungrazed area, the heather in the sub-montane area is four times taller, the sphagnum moss is luxuriant and it bristles with rowan and birch saplings. This regenerating woodland will advance up the slope on this side of the fence if the exclusion of grazing is continued. It is in this ungrazed area of lush, scrubby growth that I came across a roe deer. The ungrazed wood below had a much more varied understorey, and with young, small trees – and despite the lack of grazing, the condition report acknowledges that “The bryophytes within the wood, are in any event, rich and diverse” (Unit 4 (19))

I would take everyone to witness this contrast so that the damaging effects of grazing are made apparent, as I would also point out the flourishing regeneration of the exclosures in the cattle grazed areas. Why isn’t this differential a part of the Wild Ennerdale "story" in terms of what it teaches us? Cynicism would suggest that it is an "inconvenient truth" when use is not made of the evidence in front of our eyes! And why hasn’t Natural England fined the National Trust for allowing the overgrazing of Side Wood?

Mark Fisher, 12 May 2009

(1) West Cumbrian farmer fined for letting animals overgraze, News & Star 10 March 2009

(2) The importance of livestock grazing for wildlife conservation (IN170), English Nature 2005

(3) Amazing Grazing, east of England team, Natural England

(4) Beacon nature reserve allowed to reach full potential, This is Cornwall 28 April 2009

(5) Bristol City Council wants goats on Avon Gorge, This is Bristol 16 April 2009

(6) Trust replies to 'vandalism' charge, This is Cornwall 25 February 2009

(7) A little grazing goes a long way, This is Cornwall 1 April 2009

(8) Proposed works on Longmoor Common, Ennerdale, Cumbria, The Planning Inspectorate 16 May 2008

(9) New action to protect butterflies focuses on Scottish woodlands, Jenny Haworth, Scotsman 25 April 2009

(10) Seeing the light in our woodlands, Jenny Duckworth, Plantlife, Issue 52 Autumn 2008

(11) Bats and Woodland, Theresa Greenaway, Plantlife, Issue 53, Spring 2009

(12) Domestic Stock Grazing to Enhance Woodland Biodiversity (fcin28), Brenda Mayle, Forestry Commission 1999$FILE/fcin28.pdf

(13) A survey of cattle-grazed woodlands in Britain, Forestry Commission 2003$FILE/cattle_report.pdf

(14) What might a British forest-landscape driven by large herbivores look like?(R530),English Nature 2003

(15) Managing Cattle, Wild Ennerdale

(16) Pillar and Ennerdale Fells SSSI, English Nature

(17) Pillar and Ennerdale SSSI: Survey of National Vegetation Classification Communities, English Nature 2003

(18) Bryophyte survey of Side Wood, Ennerdale, Cumbria, National Trust 2001

(19) Condition of Units 2 & 4, Pillar and Ennerdale Fells SSSI, English Nature