Hares, Cows & Hairy Cows

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The power of beef cattle

Yet again, I would be jumping the gun if I claimed that my six Galloway heifers were reinventing the natural history of Galloway, but it is interesting to note that wildlife continues to respond to their presence. It may be a simple coincidence, but hares seem to have colonised the field since the cattle were put on, and now it’s not uncommon to see them loping slowly over the grass between the islands of gorse and blackthorn.

Ten years ago, hares were unheard of in our glen, and if this latest colonization is linked to the presence of cattle, I find it hard to explain the mechanism by which it has taken place. The best theory I have is simply that grassland in winter can be an extremely sterile, quiet place without the feeding and activity of livestock. I reckon that wild animals can be drawn into an area by an ambiguous sense that “something different is happening here”. Perhaps the bustle and activity of my animals provides a point of interest and variety in an otherwise quiet landscape, and it’s very hard to quantify this factor against easily measurable factors like “food availability” and “breeding cover”.

Bringing livestock indoors during the winter is now so commonplace that it’s almost unusual to see cows between October and March. Even by my SRUC advisor’s reckoning, the number one funding objective for any “New Entrant” to farming is sheds and housing. I quite understand why farmers are keen to house their stock indoors over the winter, but it has been interesting to explore what the disappearance of traditional winter routines is having on wildlife.

My six heifers have been sharing the field over the winter with six of my mother’s native breed sheep who are currently in the process of lambing. The sheep obviously have less of an impact on the field when it comes to poaching and creating mires around feeding areas, but the crumb-like makeup of their food has been an added draw alongside the hay that has been spread for all the livestock. We now frequently see pheasants and partridges picking at the places where the sheep are fed, yet when I scan the ground after the sheep have had their fill, I only find the tiniest crumbs of maize. This seems to be enough to draw in game, and it’s not hard to imagine that this little niche would once have been keenly filled by wild partridges. I remember the old shepherd on the Chayne noting that greyhens would come to pick at scraps of pellet left by the sheep in the cold winter of 2010, and these leftovers must form a small but significant part of subsistence living for wildlife when so many other natural food sources fail.

But again, it’s always worth remembering that what I’m doing is on such a small scale as to be almost meaningless. I believe that there is some truth in my theories, but they wouldn’t stand the slightest scientific scrutiny. The best I can do is conjure up some aspects of agriculture “as it was”, but I can’t resist teasing apart my own observations for some deeper meaning or significance.

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