|The term Conservation Grazing is used to describe the role that grazing animals can play in maintaining the bio-diversity in areas of countryside that are maintained for their wildlife interest as opposed to farmed for food crops. Without some form of intervention, nearly all uncultivated land eventually reverts to scrub and then woodland and therefore if some steps are not taken to control this process only a relatively small variety of animal and plant species thrive as so many are specific to particular types of habitat. For instance, the Dartford Warbler and Nightjar, two very rare birds, only live on heathland, which, without maintenance, reverts very quickly to woodland.
The role of grazing animals is to graze the more vigorous scrub and tree species, opening up the sward to allow other species to germinate. While this process can be done mechanically to some extent, and in many instances of very overgrown sites has to be the first operation, the action of cannot be duplicated, not least because machines do not produce cowpats! Dung of course attracts beetles, flies and grubs, which in turn are fed upon.
The other unique attribute of grazing animals is selectiveness. Use of machinery is inevitably dictated by cost and moving inevitably produces straight lines and areas of uniform height. Cattle are selective, grazing one small area right down, browsing another lightly, leaving another completely and in doing so they create a mosaic of differing heights and thicknesses in the herbage and often a better habitat for small creatures. In terms of heather management grazing is ideal. The heather plant has a life cycle of about 5 years, while some creatures prefer short heather other prefer older longer heather. Once mature, the plants have a tendency to die back. Using cattle to graze insures not only a good mixture of differing heights in a given area, but also extends the life of the plant.
The Shetland breed is one of the most suitable breeds to use in the grazing of wildlife areas, particularly heathland, where the protein in the vegetation is too low to maintain the high nutritional needs of modern day breeds. Shetlands will happily over winter on the poorest of herbage, provided there is some bulk to eat. Locally my herd can be seen on Heathland, Wood Pasture and Water meadows. They are testament to the fact that Beef can be produced on an extensive, very low input system with no need for fertilisers or intensive farming methods.