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Grazing, agri-environment schemes and environmental outcomes in the uplands

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Payments to better understand moorland

Livestock on hillside

Grazing is an important part of our farming industry and, for many, management of livestock is more than an occupation: it is a way of life. 

It is the main use of land across much of the country and can have a profound effect on our environment, defining its landscape and habitats.  It is the reason much of our uplands are open landscapes and helps determine which plants form the dominant vegetation over large areas.

Grazing remains an important part of the upland common traditions, often using traditional breeds but is, sadly, less prevalent today on our lowland commons.  

Natural England values grazing in the uplands. It maintains open habitats and landscapes. We also recognise the importance of pastoral traditions in rural communities. Like all land uses, grazing can be a good thing. It can also have some unintended consequences. 

Supporting our uplands

As we understand more about the pressures on our environment, be it climate change, long range airborne pollution or biodiversity loss, we need to look at how grazing can help support the restoration of rich environments that characterise our uplands.

Different animals have different impacts. For example, ponies and cattle can be very useful in conservation management. They can graze down coarse vegetation that might otherwise choke out less robust wild flowers. They can also break up closed grassland swards with their hooves to create space for seeds to germinate. 

On the other hand, the same qualities mean that an excessive number on a site can damage vegetation by grazing plants too heavily (leading to loss of sensitive species) and by ‘poaching’ the ground (churning it to mud and killing the vegetation).  

On particular sites, grazing regimes need to be tailored carefully to suit the type of land and vegetation. Too much livestock, especially in winter and bad weather, can be damaging, so the needs and welfare of the animals must be considered through the whole year, not just when they are wanted for conservation grazing.

Ultimately, we want to see the right livestock on the right sites for the right times, and to reward graziers for their contributions towards nature recovery.

Working with graziers to achieve grazing levels that deliver a range of outcomes alongside maintaining rural traditions and economy is vital.

The way upland areas are managed can have profound implications for society as a whole – delivering water for drinking, reducing flood-risk, contributing to improving wildlife and reducing the impact of climate change.

Our role

It is part of Natural England’s role to advise on how best to provide those benefits. We know that where changes are needed to meet these environmental outcomes then these cannot often be achieved overnight, and sometimes there needs to be a period of adjustment. 

We do need confidence that the trajectory is the right one and will deliver the desired outcomes. 

This is especially the case where the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also the case on commons where there is an added level of complexity in that an overall grazing regime needs to be agreed for the common and then the role played by each individual grazier agreed within the overall framework.

As we move to a publicly funded regime which supports environmentally sustainable farming then livestock numbers, breed types, seasonality and shepherding are all important factors.  Stock density and patterns of grazing across the seasons are often considered in agri-environment agreements.

For most agreements, appropriate stocking calendars are quickly agreed, but in a minority of places they can be the subject of detailed and tricky negotiations.  

This can sometimes mean seeking a reduction in grazing pressure or a different balance in livestock types between sheep, cattle and, in places, ponies. We will look at all the aspects of how grazing is carried out to reflect the requirements on each individual site.  There is no blanket approach, nor a one-size-fits-all answer.

We are keen to hear your thoughts on this, so do comment below.

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  1. Comment by Ed Wilkinson posted on

    Hi Rob

    It would be great to have an opportunity to engage more directly with Natural England on the latest developments in fencing, which is an intrinsic element of nearly all grazing. Regrettably so many specs we see show how slowly many land managers and associated organisations are to embrace new ways of fencing, resulting in bad designs and poor long-term value.

    I'd welcome the chance to offer our services.

    Ed Wilkinson
    McVeigh Parker

  2. Comment by Joe posted on

    This is great to hear, after being on css for over 30 years our pastures have improved so much that the originally specified stocking density struggles to properly manage the growth. Better I think just to specify that the land should not be over or under utilized.

  3. Comment by Barbara Clarkson posted on

    You have said a lot about your grazing ideals but what is the scheme? No information relevant to any schemes so perhaps you’d enlighten us farmers what this is information is for. What are the upland schemes you have in mind? At present we cannot find any information about schemes which are likely to be workable on an upland holding such as ours!

  4. Comment by Tam Mayor posted on

    Really pleased to see Natural England and Defra supporting a more tailored approach to grazing. It would be great to see a more nuanced approach that is not specifically tied to stock numbers. Much of the research coming out from holistically managed, and regeneratively managed pastures, looks not just at stock density, but to other factors such as the available quality and quantity of grass in the sward, and the recovery time (eg: the time the grass takes to recover between grazings). I think it would be hugely positive to move away from a reductionist methodology based purely on numbers, and towards a tailored approach to each piece of land depending upon what outcomes are preferred. An approach that is most likely never static, but evolves along with the land itself. If this sounds complex, it should be. We are dealing with complex systems and need to become better stewards of our land, carefully observing and responding to changes not in line with numbers on a page, but with our experience of how the land itself adapts and responds to change over time.

  5. Comment by Jane Le Cocq posted on

    The welfare of animals being used as conservation grazing tools should be very carefully monitored throughout the year especially during the winter months. Cattle deaths have occurred due to exposure and starvation on high exposed sites with no access to shelter or supplementary feeding during extreme weather events. These deaths were on sites being managed under a cattle grazing option.

  6. Comment by Robin Horton posted on

    what about more diversified livestock types to deal with specific landscape issues such as this example;

  7. Comment by David Hooton posted on

    Very interesting, and of course farm livestock are not the only grazers / browsers that are present in many areas of both upland and low areas. Deer are present in some number in most areas of the country, the way in which they browse / graze is important, and when looking at stocking densities and timings it will be important to factor in that deer will be present all the time, unless you fence them out, or you are managing them (culling) to attempt to move their grazing / browsing around. (landscape of fear), in a similar way that predators would have naturally moved deer through a landscape, often at different times of year...

  8. Comment by Ann Willcocks posted on

    I am encouraged to read that you recognise grazing livestock are important. A whole livestock systems approach is required for grazing our iconic landscapes , specifically uplands. The grazing cattle, sheep and ponies are often breeds adapted to the hill and are hefted/leared to the area with significant disease resistance and adapted to their environment. It must be remembered that these livestock need to be bred on the land and replacement livestock cannot always be purchased.
    Grazing regimes need to reflect seasonal weather variations and not be dependent upon dates on a calendar.
    Livestock are not cloud based, consideration must be given to housing or accommodating livestock when they are not grazing agreement land.
    During the term of agreement, if it is not acceptable for significant reductions in livestock numbers to be requested without financial recompense.
    Farm viability must be considered and grazing numbers must ensure viability - not unviable grazing numbers - environmental schemes need to delivery more than on just the environmental benefit. If the graziers are lost, replacing graziers and their livestock is very, very difficult.
    Stocking rates must be set locally, not on a national scale as every area is different.
    Overgrazing is often a result of less grazing area available to livestock because of vegetation encroachment. The knee jerk reaction is to reduce livestock. We need to improve the dialogue between farmers and NE and find various solutions to perceived overgrazing and measure change and celebrate success.
    There needs to be a better working relationship with NE - they no longer offer advice, agreements are run by the RPA with NE acting as advisors to the RPA, this does not work. NE are now more about finding faults than offering advice and this can be changed for the better.
    We need to be able to monitor change and for this monitoring to be accepted by NE and the RPA.

  9. Comment by Helen Radmore posted on

    I agree with Ann Willcocks. Please could all N.E project officers read
    "Mervyn Edwards MBE -Hefting explained. March 2020"


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