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What is Conservation Grazing?

The Grazing Advice Partnership exists to encourage grazing that benefits wildlife, landscape and cultural heritage. Conservation grazing is livestock grazing that meets nature conservation objectivesand includes everything from extensive, low-intervention grazing schemes meeting welfare needs of livestock while allowing natural processes to occur to grazing on improved grassland managed to optimize sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.

While there is no golden rule, conservation grazing generally involves less intensive land management techniques on areas that are less commercially productive. The type of livestock is a primary consideration for conservation grazing and differences in feeding preferences, physiology and animal behaviour  will affect their suitability for different sites. Due to their hardiness and ability to cope well on unimproved grassland rare and native breeds of livestock are frequently used in conservation and extensive grazing systems and represent an important part of our cultural heritage.


Why graze?

In the UK almost all areas we value for their conservation interest form part of cultural landscapes created by humans, often as a side product of subsistence agriculture. Grazing livestock and associated activities played a key role in the formation and maintenance of many semi-natural habitats including grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland, through slowing or altering the successional trajectory of these habitats towards increased woodland cover. In addition to maintaining or restoring such habitats, grazing is also an essential component of many habitat (re)creation projects for example managed reversion from arable fields to species-rich grassland or the recreation of heathland.  

Cowslip, Durlston Country Park, Dorset


Livestock affect vegetation communities through removal of biomass. This allows less competitive species to become established as dominant plant species are reduced. Trampling also creates areas of bare ground, which may be suitable for plant regeneration from seed or seedbanks, and are beneficial for invertebrates and herptiles. Together with grazing and browsing, physical damage to vegetation from lying, rolling and pushing can also increase structural diversity. High grazing pressure may limit scrub expansion and in some cases reduce scrub cover. Many invertebrate species are also dependent on the dung that livestock produce (over 250 species of insects are found in or on cattle dung in the UK1), while dunging patterns can result in the redistribution of nutrients. 
 

There are many examples of species that benefit from grazing. Many individual plant species benefit, while habitats such as flower-rich meadows are dependent on grazing. Ground-nesting wading birds such as lapwing or snipe need grazing to create the varied sward structure they need to fledge their young successfully. A number of species of bats including both species of horseshoe bat depend on a mixture of invertebrate-rich habitats in which to forage, including grazed pasture and meadows.

Farmer

Many semi-natural habitats are now marginal to current agricultural production and have become degraded through lack of appropriate grazing. In the lowlands, uneconomic sites have been left ungrazed, while in much of the uplands, the structure of agricultural subsidies led to overgrazing. The resulting inappropriate grazing has affected a significant land area. For example, 141,000 ha of SSSI have been damaged by overgrazing, while 62,000ha have been affected by undergrazing or the spread of scrub2 . Current agricultural incentives are predicted to lead to an overall decrease in the number of livestock available. 
 

What can conservation grazing achieve?

In response to these problems, many conservation organisations now have their own livestock or work closely with local farmers to ensure that grazing continues on wildlife sites that need it. At the same time, farmers are encouraged through Environmental Stewardship to use grazing regimes that will benefit wildlife. A growing number of farmers and other land managers are making a conscious decision to tailor grazing management on their lands to meet nature conservation objectives (e.g. the Knepp Estate). In practice, conservation grazing schemes may fit anyone from extensive, low-intervention grazing schemes meeting welfare needs of livestock while allowing natural processes to occur at one end of the spectrum to grazing on improved grassland managed to optimize sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds at the other end.

Ebsbury Down from Little Langford DownIn addition to a wildlife-rich countryside, conservation grazing can deliver substantial benefits to local communities. Local production of good quality meat and dairy produce with high welfare standards is a key outcome of many conservation grazing schemes. Such schemes can play a role in rejuvenating rural economies while using traditional rural skills such as stock husbandry which are in decline. Visitors to grazed sites with public access often enjoy watching free-ranging animals, and in some cases enjoy becoming involved as voluntary stock checkers, helping to keep an eye on livestock. So conservation grazing is not about looking back to a “golden age” where rural practices optimized biodiversity, but looking forward to ways in which sustainable management of the countryside will benefit both the wildlife and the communities who live there.
 

Further information on conservation grazing is available on our grazing map and from the publications section of the website. GAP runs various workshops on grazing topics and training courses on stock checking and conservation grazing. More about the grazing behaviour of different types of livestock and individual breeds can be found in the Breeds Profile Handbook.


 

1 From ‘Keeping Dung Healthy – especially for Bats’ FWAG/English Nature advice note
2 from ENSIS, English Nature’s database of SSSIs, November 2004