July 2019 - It’s all coming together for conservation grazing

A farming landscape

Summer is marching on. The farm landscape is changing as grasslands are cut for winter feed. This year sounds like it’s been a bumper crop for farmers – with rain and higher temperatures coming at the right time to create lush grass growth. A relief after last year’s drought. We may take for granted our landscape of fields and hedgerows and the annual cycle of cutting that maintains our meadows and grazing by sheep, cattle and ponies that maintains pastures. It is grazing animals and especially cattle that now play an ever-important role in helping to maintain many of our species rich grasslands - especially wet grasslands. We often talk about conservation grazing in relation to managing habitats. But this relationship between our habitats, grazing animals and humans has a long and complex history – which makes it a fascinating part of working in the countryside…

A brief history of time!

Our journey of understanding landscape must start with ourselves.  Although we as humans see ourselves as separate to nature, we are but one of many species that has shaped Earths habitats.  Our modern farmed landscape in Wales is dominated by grassland and grazing animals and is a clear response to a very long relationship with grazing animals and the environment.  The family of plants known as grasses are understood to have evolved and risen to dominance around 55-60 million years ago (roughly post dinosaurs).  Their spread and rise to dominance was initially believed to be influenced by climate change.  The evolution of grass grazing animals seems to have come later but led to the development of a large group of animals that could exploit and benefit from this new food source.  Over millions of years these animals and the grasslands and flowering plants associated with them, evolved and spread to create a wide range of species rich grassland-based habitats across all climatic zones of our planet.  Grazing animals evolved different forms of eating and digestion that meant they could also exploit foods from other habitat types such as heathland, tundra, scrub and savannah.  Humans enter a couple of million years ago as omnivores but also as predators and it is then the interaction between us, other predators, the grazing animals our grasslands and forests that leads to our modern landscapes in northern Europe.

The Blue Grey cows grazing the heathland of Y Gyrn
Cows grazing
The Blue Grey cows grazing the heathland of Y Gyrn

A long-standing relationship

So, what does this all have to do with conservation grazing?  I guess what I’m trying to connect with is this long-standing relationship we have had with grazing animals.  Our ancestors are likely to have followed large herds of grazing animals across northern Europe, which is now understood now to have been a more varied forest landscape of open trees, grassland and dense woodland which would have waxed and waned as ice ages came and went.  As people developed an understanding of each grazing species in detail their preferred grazing areas, the taste of the meat, ability to milk use skin and wool; a relationship that has led to domestication and then to the grassland habitats and post forest landscape we are familiar with today.  In the UK as settled farming, culture and language evolved regional variation in animals and practice came in to being and the whole art and science of animal breeding and the rituals tied up with the farming calendar.  Up until recent modern changes in farming and grassland management humans created a landscape (in Wales) of species rich grasslands that supported a huge range of insects, birds and mammals.

Working together

An understanding of this interaction then is important as farmers and conservationists are coming together in discussions around sustainable land management for the future.  These developments are based on what we know about how animals have thrived in our landscapes in the past.  A growing number of farmers are developing different ways of raising animals and especially cattle on the land that are less intensive – reducing soil erosion, locking up carbon and building soil fertility and less demanding on resources but also important for wildlife.  But conservation grazing works at many different scales.  In my patch – we have small herds of cows lightly grazing grassland at Lanlay and Coelbren.  On Blaenglyn Farm the tenants bought in a small herd of Blue Grey cows to graze the heathland of Y Gyrn, as well as their Welsh Mountain ponies.  And we have supported bringing cattle back to small farms like Berthlwyd to better graze the marshy grassland.  You may also hear terms like “planned holistic grazing”, which can work at much bigger scales and the approach the National Trust’s tenant at Croome Park is using.

So, conservation grazing in a way embodies our relationship with nature and how we can create amazing and diverse, species rich landscapes but also where farming and conservation find their middle ground.  The next time you encounter cows grazing on a patch of grassland you can reflect on the millions of years of plant and animal (including humans) evolution and interaction that has created the scene.   Our relationship with these animals will remain forever important as we head into the future and look to sustain our habitats, wildlife, landscape and of course food!

Come back next month for an update from Lead Ranger Rob on the footpath maintenance and repair work carried out to continue keeping our sites open and accessible to all who enjoy them.