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Last modified: 06 March 2013

David and Marian Harding

The right type of livestock grazing is essential to maintain a range of threatened wildlife and habitats across the UK’s uplands. However, a new report commissioned by the RSPB reveals that changes in livestock grazing in the UK’s most vulnerable farming areas could have an impact on threatened wildlife and habitats.

The RSPB is calling on the Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill- and her colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales– to provide greater support to these ‘vulnerable’ farmers through the Rural Development Programme.

The research assesses how livestock numbers have changed in the so-called ‘Less Favoured Areas’ across the UK, from Dartmoor to the Western Isles of Scotland and from Welsh uplands to the west of Northern Ireland: County Fermanagh. The research, which involved a range of farming and conservation experts, is timely, given current discussions on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, as it stresses the need to improve support to these areas. These places - which often include common land or grazings - each have a character and special wildlife that are maintained by a delicate balance of livestock grazing.

The report found reductions in grazing pressure on unenclosed land have been broadly positive for the environment, with upland habitats such as heath and blanket bog recovering well because of fewer sheep. However, undergrazing is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species such as golden plover.

Dr Abi Burns is the RSPB senior agricultural policy officer leading on livestock issues. Commenting on the eight areas highlighted by case studies in the report, she said: “It’s vital that wildlife friendly livestock farmers in these areas – and across the uplands more widely – are able to continue to sustain the natural diversity and heritage of some of our most iconic landscapes. These environmentally important - but economically fragile – systems need better support which recognises the valuable services they can provide for society as a whole.

“Too much or too little grazing, or grazing by the wrong type of livestock, or at the wrong time of year, and these areas can begin to lose their special character.”

The report was produced for the RSPB by Cumulus Consultants. Paul Silcock of Cumulus Consultants, said: “This research illustrates the complexity of the linkages between livestock grazing and biodiversity, and the variability across the UK not only in changes in livestock numbers and grazing regimes, but also in the resulting impacts on different habitats and species.

“Combine this with the fact that the continuation of upland grazing is to a large extent dependent on scheme payments,  and it underlines the need for a flexible approach in terms of the delivery of this support at local level. More should also be done to support positive cattle and sheep grazing by research into more profitable and sustainable upland farming systems, retaining and extending the grazing and land management skills required, and promoting beef, lamb and other products from the uplands.” As well as gathering data on livestock numbers and changes in grazing regimes, this research has helped to identify the barriers to environmentally positive grazing. 

A key finding of the report is the importance of projects fostering partnership working, such as initiatives promoting short supply chains that connect consumers to local, more sustainable farming systems. This uses purchasing power to influence the management of iconic upland landscapes and wildlife.

The research found major differences in changes in cattle and sheep numbers, and grazing pressure, between regions. The greatest decreases in grazing pressure have occurred in northern England, South Wales, the Western Isles of Scotland and the western part of Northern Ireland. Some regions have experienced an increase in grazing pressure and the picture varies considerably at the local level. 

The report authors also found notable differences between countries in grazing pressure and the balance between cattle and sheep. For example, the report shows that, beef cows have decreased most in Northern Ireland (NI) by -19% followed by Scotland Wales and England -0.5%. The report also found that breeding ewes decreased most in NI (-34.3%) compared to the other UK countries. The report also assessed the conditions of specially protected areas in NI and found that the habitats that were deemed unfavorable had a grazing prescription attached (either over grazing or under grazing).  

Alongside changes in livestock numbers, the research also found a number of other recent changes in upland grazing regimes which experts believe are having important impacts on wildlife.  Common changes include fewer cattle and less mixed grazing. And the greater use of continental livestock breeds and the more intensive use of the so-called in-bye land, which has created a reduction in habitat for birds, such as the lapwing, as well as nutrient enrichment.

Fewer cattle and a reduction in mixed grazing is contributing to the spread of ranker grasses, rush, scrub and bracken. The project found a proven need for the use of hardy cattle, including breeds such as Welsh Black, Blue Grey, Highland and Galloway. However not all traditional herds have these traits, illustrating the importance of careful stock selection.

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