Grazing Theories

One of my riggit galloway calves in the snow

It is often helpful to be challenged, and if nothing else this blog provides a useful means of subjecting my own views to public scrutiny.

Having written recently about Conservation Grazing, I received some diverse and fascinating feedback from readers of this blog, and while limited time precludes a detailed response to every thread of some nuanced arguments, it is refreshing to be able to see my own views from another perspective. One particular comment warrants closer scrutiny because it challenged the foundations of the entire project with a view that conservation grazing is often a negative force in conservation. This full comment is HERE (down at the bottom), but a basic summary of one of the main points against conservation grazing is copied below:

“At best it is about the maintenance of an artificial grazing pressure, the objective of which is itself the continuance of traditional land management (as well as farming agri-environment payments from the HLS). At worst, it is the destroyer of biodiversity, suppressor of succession and creator of over-simplified landscapes… But I’d like to hear more about your “conservation” objectives, and whether you are getting paid out of the HLS”.

What a fantastic challenge. I could be boringly specific about my conservation objectives, but for this article at least it is perhaps more helpful to zoom out a bit. Over the past six years, this blog has followed my efforts to improve the conservation value of a hill farm – It is no mistake that the blog is called GallowayFarm, and not GallowayHill or GallowayMoor. It has always been very clear to me that I am working on farmland and my restraints are the same restraints faced by farmers across the Southern Uplands, and given that I am not eligible for any grant funding whatsoever, my hands are financially limited but philosophically free.

My real focus and area of interest has been the fact that traditional farming methods produced an astounding bounty of wildlife. At thirty years old, I am too young to have seen the huge majority of all that has gone before me, and the birds and mammals I find on the hill are just a shadow of their former selves. That said, I am particularly captivated by the speed with which so much of this wildlife has vanished, particularly since my father’s generation knew breeding redshank, peewits, oystercatcher and golden plover on a hill where now there are only pipits and the occasional lark.

The reasons for this collapse are complex and have been covered in great detail elsewhere on this blog, but as the hills were planted with commercial forestry, the nature of farming changed beyond recognition. As the level of agricultural investment dropped, biodiversity dropped alongside it, revealing the obvious fact that once thriving populations of waders, game and songbirds had been artificially boosted by man’s activities. The same is true right across the board for all kinds of upland and lowland habitats, and many species became so entwined with this manmade landscape that it is now difficult to disentangle them from it.

Even at an ecological level, animal behaviour was distorted by the change. Moorland-breeding curlews began to breed in hay fields and arable crops. Oystercatchers started to move inland to nest, and over the course of several hundred years, wildlife adapted to prosper in the new order. Now that the hills are changing again, we are leaving lots of species high and dry, unable to go back to their old ways. Advocates of rewilding might argue that we now have to let some species go. If we allow the uplands to reforest themselves naturally, some birds will vanish from the hills because they depend upon open ground. Fair enough, you could argue that they should not have been there in the first place and their disappearance is just a rebalancing of natural orders (although this assumes that man’s role is essentially unnatural). I am satisfied by the logic of this argument in theory, but I am wholly bound to the idea that a groundswell of wildlife can work in unison with human interests.

I don’t think it’s naive or irresponsible to have serious-minded opinions swayed by whimsical notions of culture and heredity. A driving force behind rewilding is the primitive, thrilling prospect of turning back the clock to a long-gone age. We so often make decisions about land use based entirely on cold fiscal reason that I think we could sometimes do with a little crazy human passion. I am a product of the Southern Uplands, and my ancestors have been farming here beyond vision. For generations, the hills produced a bounty of nature alongside agricultural (and sporting) interests, and in the days before the awful term was coined, they also provided a wealth of “ecosystem services”. The fact that this balance has fallen apart in the past Century does nothing to dispel the potency of its cultural value.

My home has also been a home to the curlew and the blackcock for centuries, and I feel their eyes on my back. If they did not “belong” here naturally, then it was the labour of man that brought them into these hills and I can see that as a process of nature. Man and beast have been changed by this relationship and neither have remained either purely wild or wholly domesticated. (Perhaps that’s a topic for another day – after all, I like to limit blog articles to 1,000 words or less)

By investing in cattle, I have taken the first step towards understanding how the relationship worked between farming and wildlife. I don’t expect grazing to be a panacea for all the county’s wrongs, but there are mechanisms by which cattle could help and I need to know them. Of course there are situations where conservation grazing has done more harm than good, but failure is as important as success when it comes to learning.

The more I think of it, the more I dislike the expression “conservation grazing”. I shouldn’t have used it as the title of my recent blog article because it smacks of department jargon and I have no doubt that it is cynically pedalled by some opportunist farmers who are carefully tuned to suckle on grant systems. You could dismiss my project as “preservation grazing” – holding on to the past and preserving it in cotton wool, but I think it is more three dimensional than that. Aside from my own obsessive interest, there are lessons in history which we have not yet uncovered and which may have huge value for the future. More than anything, I want our hills to fulfil their best potential, alive to a world that places increasing demands on them.


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