Saturday, 31 July 2010

conservation grazing

Not everybody wants to leap out of bed at 6.30 on a Saturday morning but it's the best time of day to be out in the meadow if you have cattle to check. There's hardly anyone about - just the odd roe deer browsing and a few sleepy butterflies waking up in the early morning sunshine.
This morning I startled a fox and watched it bound over tall tussocks of grass to the edge of the wood. I wasn't quite speedy enough to catch it on camera but it was a beautiful beast with deep brown fur and a black tip to its tail.

In our main paddock, 19 Fresian steers and one jersey cross (affectionately known as "cadbury) came bounding to meet me at the fence. Dairy breeds are not the normal choice for conservation grazing but they seem to do well on our site. They were given extra feed yesterday as the grass is so dry and were clearly hoping for another delivery this morning. Their loud chorus of mooing made a happy greeting. Empty-handed, I had to send them back to work to eat the scrub and keep the meadow, well, meadow-like.

After the ice age and before humans swarmed in large numbers across the British Isles, most of the land was covered with forest. Grassland and heath were created by clearances for agriculture and remained open landscapes thanks to constant human management - largely by grazing. When extensive sheep and cattle rearing disappeared from lowland Britain after the Second World War, these open spaces quickly scrubbed over and reverted to woodland. With them went the natural flora and fauna adapted over millennia to these habitats.

So grazing is back in conservation and it's big news. One wildlife trust even maintains its own grazing herd; other organisations borrow animals from farmers, offering free food in return for a living mower. The thing is: animals do a much better job than mechanical mowers from a conservation perspective. They graze the sward to a variety of different heights, creating mini-habitats for lots of different flowers and invertebrates.

Since grazing was reintroduced on our site some 15 years ago, the main paddock has been sprinkled with a carpet of violets every spring and attracted the spectacular silver-washed fritillary whose caterpillars feed on them. A rare plant, the wonderfully named corky-fruited water dropwort (above right), was once restricted to a single clump. Since the cows arrived, they seem to have spread it across a huge swathe by carrying the seeds on their feed. Yellowhammers with their distinctive song: "A little bit of bread and butter and a piece of cheese" have also recolonised the meadow.

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