Winter Feeding

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Churning up the bracken

Interesting to record some of many immediate impacts of feeding out-wintered cattle. I’m currently carting hay up to the galloways every morning, and in this period of wonderful high pressure and low temperatures, the experience is no chore. Having built a hay-heck from old timber off-cuts, the heifers now understand the arrangement and come trudging in when I start shouting, often kicking their heels up to frolick until the air is filled with billowing clouds of their warm, sweet-smelling breath.

It’s been very dry over the past month, but the mud is still churned up around the feeder. Shreds of hay billow around, and I recently noticed that large gangs of meadow pipits come down to feed between these dry blades of dead grass. They’re not eating the hay itself, but they like to sort through it for some other reason and they spend a considerable amount of time around the feeders. When I feed cake or concentrates (which is only during the hardest weather), the troughs are surrounded by robins and chaffinches hoping to snaffle any fragments left by the grinding molars, and there are also signs that pheasants are lingering around in the hope of a crumb.

Standing back from the feeder yesterday afternoon, I was responsible for foiling a low-level ambush from a large female sparrowhawk as she rushed in to grab a pipit from the hay. The hawk flared away as she saw me and rushed away into the scots pines further uphill, provoking a chorus of disapproval from a blackbird. Although they can hardly recognise it, my cows are responsible for a tiny microcosmic ecosystem which wouldn’t exist without their dependence on stored feeding. Without hay, there would be no pipits, and without pipits, there would be no sparrowhawk. I’m happy to recognise this as a fillip of almost immeasurable smallness, but imagine rolling out the impact of these six out-wintered heifers to a time not so long ago when almost every cow would have been fed and kept outdoors.

As much as my agriculture course taught me to fear “compaction” and the damage caused to soil structure by feeding cattle during wet weather, I am intrigued to follow this thread. I don’t want to devalue the productivity of the field by poaching it into non-existence, but it strikes me that the churned-up patches where cattle are fed during the winter provide an important crucible of conservation interest. Mashed up with liberal doses of shit and undigested seeds (of grasses and weeds) from fodder and forage, the choppy, deeply rutted ugliness of winter often blossoms into pleasing variety in the spring and summer. As a point of interest, it’s surprising how often “greens” where winter feeding (of sheep and/or cows) has taken place are used as lek sites by black grouse in April and May.

The grey area between agricultural damage and conservation value is largely subjective, but there are empirically visible bounds for both. Just as pristine swathes of immaculate grassland is of little use to wildlife, there must equally come a point when ground is so badly damaged that it underperforms for conservation interests. This is a relatively straightforward line for me to walk with only a few small heifers in my portfolio, but I look forward to seeing what becomes of it. I hope to grow my own hay in 2017, and even plan to grow my own turnips as winter fodder – this is where things will really get interesting.

In the meantime, it’s worth recirculating this old picture (above) of belties being fed from a ring-feeder with the stated intention of mashing up the ground in order to damage the root structure of the bracken below. Bracken root rhizomes are very sensitive to frost, and this partly explains why the plant lays down its own insulating blanket of fallen litter each year. If you can use cattle to break through this blanket and expose the roots to frost and ice, you stand a good chance of exercising some control over an otherwise rampant plant species.

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