There’s a lot of talk about conservation grazing: the use of livestock to restore or maintain rare habitats, but we often overlook the importance of using our native breeds.

What is conservation grazing?

Grazing animals have three main impacts: the removal of plant material through the actual grazing or browsing process; the enrichment of the soil through dunging and urination; and disturbance of the ground by trampling hooves. Undergrazing can result in the dominance of a few coarse species that are usually kept in check by grazing and the growth of unwanted scrub. Overgrazing can lead to desirable plant species being eliminated and so-called weed species increasing, often through the introduction of too many animals or the use of the wrong type of livestock.  

A variety of land managers carry out conservation grazing. Some conservation organisations own and manage their own flocks and herds for the sole purpose of grazing, some work in partnership with graziers who provide livestock. Conventional farmers may use livestock for conservation grazing under agri-environment schemes.

Different species graze differently.

Sheep are highly selective grazers, with small mouths able to pick the sweetest and most nutritious plant species from a sward. Their hooves are small and relatively light, compacting the ground. Evolved for a mountainous environment, they can suffer from foot problems and from the effects of flies in a lowland setting. However, appropriately managed, sheep can be useful animals, for example in heathland restoration where they can be summer grazed to reduce the expansion of scrub and promote heather growth, which they tend to eat only in winter.

Cattle are perhaps more useful animals than sheep in terms of their impacts on vegetation - although they will avoid certain species, their large mouths make it harder for them to discriminate between preferred plants and less palatable ones. Well-equipped to graze longer grasses and herbs, they create a variable sward structure benefiting a host of species. Their dung is also valuable for invertebrates and their heavy feet can break up compacted ground to provide seeding opportunities for plants.

Ponies have many of the benefits of cattle grazing when used at a similarly low stocking density and are naturally resistant to parasites and disease. They tend to create “latrine” areas which may cause localised enrichment of the soil so they are best used on large sites or for shorter periods of time. Like cattle, they will browse as well as graze and will not preferentially eat flowering heads of plants as sheep do.  

Goats can both graze and browse. Their narrow muzzles and flexible upper lips allow them to be highly selective and their agility enables them to reach a wider range of terrain than sheep.

It is also important to recognise the differences between breed populations within a grazing livestock species. The UK’s native grazing livestock breeds are a unique resource and extremely diverse.

Why use native breeds?

Native breed cattle are particularly appropriate for conservation grazing. Before the 1950s, and the onset of the CAP in the 1970s encouraging farmers to produce maximum yields, livestock had been bred to grow and reproduce on relatively low inputs. A lack of affordable “concentrate” feed or artificial fertilizers meant that animals had to be thrifty and hardy which works in favour of conservation.

The beef breeds are best suited to conservation grazing because the production of meat can more easily be sustained on low quality pastures. Upland breeds such as Highlands, Galloways, Welsh Blacks, and Beef Shorthorns are all commonly used. Breeds considered to be dual-purpose such as the Red Poll and Shetland also thrive on a conservation grazing system.

Native breed sheep can be divided into a number of categories. The primitive, upland and hill and heath breeds can all, in their own ways, make a significant contribution to conservation, although much depends on particular terrain and vegetation on which they have been reared. The lowland breeds bred to thrive on improved grass are now largely unable to do well on anything else, though there are exceptions.

Native ponies are hardy and exempt from much of the regulation that accompanies the keeping of farmed livestock. They can adapt to a range of difficult environmental conditions and tolerate UK weather when they are well acclimatised to it.

With all livestock species, there are differences between the breeds, and one breed may be more suited for a particular location or use than another.

Current support for grazing native breeds

Native breed grazers are currently supported in England under Agri Environment Schemes. The Native [Grazing] Breeds at Risk Supplement under Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship pays £94 per hectare but it can only be used in combination with one of the main land management options.

The livestock used must be on the Native Breeds At Risk (NBAR) list of grazing livestock and be either:

  • registered pedigree purebreeding animals, or
  • genetically-provable purebred progeny of registered pedigree purebreeding parents of the same eligible NBAR breed

The livestock species and breeds chosen must be agreed in writing with by Natural England to ensure they are appropriate for achieving the option’s aims.

Who needs to do what?

Farmers and land managers aiming to manage land for conservation grazing should consider the benefits of using UK native breeds. Our native breeds were bred for the British landscape and were instrumental in creating many of the pastures and meadows we seek to conserve, so it makes sense to use those breeds in their conservation.

Government has overall responsibility for delivering on our national conservation objectives, including the conservation of native livestock and equines. The power to provide financial assistance in clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill is particularly useful here. However, it needs to be exercised in a much wider way than under the current Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship scheme.

The use of the spending power in the Agriculture Bill will, of course, not be sufficient on its own to secure the conservation of our native breeds. Other governmental interventions such as the promotion of gene banking and the support of small local abattoirs are equally important.