Grazing for nature
Across the Lake District and northern Lancashire some unlikely heroes can be found dotted throughout acres of woodland and grassland, quietly working to conserve some of the area’s most iconic landscapes.
Windermere’s western shore, Tarn Hows, Silverdale and the Sizergh Estate are just a few of the places where you might encounter a small herd of cattle looking slightly out of place in an area bustling with visitors.
But they’re not there by accident. The National Trust, along with other landowners, are working with local farmers to improve wildlife habitats whilst supporting the viability of their farming businesses.
Will Cleasby, Farming Advisor for the National Trust, explains why, “Smaller herds of cattle grazing across larger areas of land significantly improves the diversity of wildlife in that landscape, and government agri-environment schemes provide funding to enable farmers to continue this work sustainably.”
Farming and the Lake District go hand in hand, with the hardy Herdwick sheep synonymous with the region. Sheep, however, graze very differently to cattle. They use their lips and front teeth to select individual plants, targeting only their favourite species – often delicate wildflowers. Over time this can reduce the diversity of pasture as it becomes dominated by the plants sheep prefer not to eat. Cows differ as they wrap their tongues around clumps of vegetation to pull it up, creating small patches of bare earth ready to be populated by new seeds. They’re also less picky – their gut is capable of digesting tougher plants and their size means they need plenty to keep going.
Weight is also a factor; the small hooves of sheep compact the earth, whereas a cow churns up the ground, creating soft, muddy pockets for seeds to germinate. Their size means they break up masses of dead leaves on the ground and create pathways through tall, dense areas. Far from being destructive, their movements provide other species a place to thrive.
Cows are so suited to this role that even their manure has a use; it’s a natural fertiliser which also supports a wide variety of insects including beetles, flies, spiders and earthworms. In turn, birds and bats feed off this new food supply, continuing the cycle. There is no modern way to replicate the efficacy of cattle grazing when it’s done with nature in mind.
Where can they be found?
Harrowslack, a section along Windermere’s quiet western shore, has historically been grazed by sheep, so wild flowers were often nibbled back before they had a chance to seed. Garry Dixon and his family are based at Hill Top farm and have been farming the area for 29 years. Garry says, “Both land management and livestock work hand in hand – without a balance neither reach their full potential.” After the introduction of a dozen British Blue Cross cattle on the lakeshore this certainly rings true; wildflower species including the oxeye daisy, knapweed, harebell, broom and bird’s-foot-trefoil are now flourishing. These colourful varieties attract bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies, which in turn boosts bird numbers including house martins, swallows and goldfinches. Scrub – a mixture of rough grasses and low lying shrubs – has developed where the cattle graze, as have gorse and thorns which provide protective habitats for birds, small mammals and growing saplings.
" Both land management and livestock work hand in hand – without a balance neither reach their full potential."
On the east shore of Coniston, Park-a-Moor sits high above the lake and is home to a mixture of Luing, Whitebred Shorthorn and Highland cattle breeds. This 40-strong breeding herd have one of the best views in the Lake District, with 150 acres of heathland at their disposal. The cattle were brought in to break up the dominant purple moor grass and make room for more desirable species such as cotton grasses, mosses and peatland plants which attract birds such as the skylark and meadow pipit. The herd’s introduction into the surrounding woodland has led to a bumper crop of touch-me-not balsam; the only food source for the caterpillar of one of the UK’s rarest moth species, the netted carpet moth.
" Grazing with biodiversity in mind goes back to how farming used to be."
Farmer John Atkinson who also manages sites at The Helm in Kendal and Hay Bridge Nature Reserve says, “Grazing with biodiversity in mind goes back to how farming used to be; cattle have always been on the Lakeland fells and we use a mixture of robust, traditional breeds. There’s less intervention on our part, the cattle roam across a large area where they can graze freely. Farming in this way supports a sustainable farm business – our herd produce happy, healthy and hardy calves which are highly sought after.”
If you head further south to the Cumbrian border you’ll reach Arnside and Silverdale, an area famed nationally for its wildlife. Its landscape is a patchwork of limestone grassland, mixed woodland and wet meadows, and it’s famed for its butterflies. It’s also home to some hardy cattle breeds, including the traditional Belted Galloways and Shetland cattle which feed on tougher grasses and bramble which would otherwise take over. Martin Fishwick has been farming the area for the past 16 years and is committed to balancing conservation work with running a successful farm business. As with the other farmers, the breeds he has chosen are docile and happy to coexist amongst humans and dogs.
" We graze areas with our cattle for the benefit of everyone – both those visiting and the wildlife living here. "
“We graze areas with our cattle for the benefit of everyone – both those visiting and the wildlife living there. We have to carefully choose which breeds we use in areas where there’s public access. We breed our own animals so we know their nature from the day they’re born; creating not only suitable grazers for this work but also a sustainable livelihood.”
These are just three examples from across the region. For generations farmers have shaped the Cumbrian landscape, a factor integral to the Lake District’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a common misconception that the countryside manages itself; much of this iconic landscape looks the way it does because of farming. The Lake District’s bid to become a World Heritage Site defined the landscape as the result of "the combined works of nature and of man" – a centuries-old partnership which is still strong today.