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Morecambe Bay Local Grazing Scheme

Location:Morecambe Bay

Habitats:Unimproved hay meadows (restoration and maintenance), Reedbed & fen (restoration and maintenance), Moorland & lowland heath, Broad-leaved woodland & Scrub

Livestock:Wiltshire Horn sheep, Red Poll cattle, Hill Radnor sheep, Hebridean Sheep, Blue Grey Cattle, Beef Shorthorn cattle

In brief:Prototype Local Grazing Scheme using cattle and sheep over 30 sites across 3 counties.

Contact:Bill Grayson

Tel:01524 761347

Email:billgrayson@farmersweekly.net

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Grazing multiple conservation sites for multiple organisations

The Morecambe Bay Local Grazing Scheme has developed over the last 15 years, evolving out of a small, organically certified, livestock business that has been able to adapt its way of operating to meet conservation needs whilst continuing to generate income from livestock production.

It retains most of the key elements of commercial livestock farms in the locality but has successfully integrated them into a conservation grazing system based on the organic philosophy of working sympathetically with nature rather than trying to dominate it. The present grazing system includes over 1000 ha of land. Most of it is limestone grassland but it also includes about 8ha of meadows which are cut for hay or silage. There are also about 80 ha of more fertile land, most of which is being restored to reedbed and fen following past drainage and agricultural improvement.

A multiple site approach

The system now covers more than thirty separate conservation sites across three counties in NW England, most of them designated for their biological importance under UK and EU law. Up to 160 cattle are routinely moved around this network of sites, an approach that makes for a much more complicated livestock operation than the typical farm holding with all of its land within one boundary. The sites all have their own specific conservation objectives but nearly all of them rely on grazing to control the advance of scrub and contain the spread of bracken. Many of them provide habitats for key butterfly populations, such as the High Brown Fritillary.

How the grazing system works

The foundation for the grazing is provided by a herd of beef cattle, comprising up to 20 suckler cows of mixed breeds, all of which are native to Britain. These cows need better quality grazing land whilst suckling their calves and most of this lies within the Arnside & Silverdale AONB part of the system. The young calves have to be housed in their first winter when they are fed the herb-rich hay produced from the system’s own network of meadows. The manure that this generates can then be spread back onto the meadows in order to sustain their fertility at an appropriate level, and ensuring that these threatened habitats retain their integral farming role . Herb-rich meadows are a very scarce habitat in the AONB and much effort is devoted to improving the species richness of the ones within the system. Whilst this inevitably means smaller crops of hay, the ecological improvements being achieved have been very encouraging.

The majority of the more challenging conservation work is performed by the growing cattle, which after weaning are dedicated to providing the grazing needed to maintain the range of habitats. To do this they are moved from one site to another in order to deliver the specific grazing regimes requested by the respective site managers, matching as far as possible, the required numbers and types of stock and the season and length of time for which they are needed. As they mature they become increasingly adept at sustaining themselves and can be moved to increasingly challenging situations.

The majority of their diet is provided by the coarse herbage that characterizes these habitats so the cattle can grow only slowly. In order to be ready for slaughter before they reach 30 months they have to graze some of the better land for the last 6-8 weeks of their lives. The meat from some of these cattle is sold directly to local people who appreciate both the conservation benefits that the system provides and the special eating quality of its produce. Some of the cattle in the present herd are subjects for Defra funded research into the health qualities of beef produced entirely from animals grazing herb-rich unimproved pastures.

Partnership working - co-operating to deliver grazing on wildlife sites

The grazing in the AONB is linked directly to companion initiatives in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Conservation stakeholders in these localities have provided resources in the form of livestock and handling facilities that whilst ensuring that their own sites are grazed effectively also contribute to the effectiveness of grazing within the AONB. The spirit of cooperation and sharing that this has helped to foster is central to the progress now being achieved.