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HOW TO MANAGE HILL LAND NATURALLY
 
Galloway cow
The following article by Richard Mawdsley MRAC was published in the November 2006 issue of Sovereignty.

Picture: Pedigree Galloway cow at the McConnachie family farm, South West Scotland.

Farmers are commonly charged with destroying our environment. I am a farmer. I plead guilty.

However, I had an accomplice; I was the junior, my senior partner denies all responsibility. Before you pronounce sentence, and gather stones to throw at me, please consider the circumstances. I started farming in 1964. Shortly afterwards, our Government introduced the Small Farms Scheme. We were encouraged, by financial inducements (subsidies), to produce more food to feed the nation to become more efficient; and thereby improve our own standards of living. It worked well.

Stage One: Destruction of the Wild Flowers
We were encouraged to plough the old meadows and pastures and reseed. It wasn't the ploughing and reseeding that killed the wild flowers. Our forebears had been doing that for hundreds of years. The new "recommended" seed mixtures contained grasses developed purposely to respond more productively to a higher fertiliser input. That was the beginning of the end.

Up to this point many of us had the universal "little grey Fergie" tractor and a finger-bar mower, or the equivalents in size and power, and much of our hay-making machinery was converted horse-drawn tackle.

The heavier crops of grass needed more robust machinery -- the first capital outlay. To justify that, we had to keep more cattle and sheep. To produce the extra crop to feed them, we used more fertiliser. Can you see where this is going?

The resultant even lusher grass could not be cut with the old mower, but the new drum mowers could cope.

The "little grey Fergie" couldn't carry the heavier machine so we needed bigger tractors too -- the second capital outlay.

To justify that, we needed to keep more livestock.

To feed them, we used more fertilizer. At this stage the grass became so luxuriant that it could not be made into hay; the solution, ensile it -- turn it into silage -- requiring even bigger tractors, more machinery and somewhere to store the silage -- the third and major capital outlay.

To pay for all this, of course, we ended up keeping even more cattle and sheep.

To feed them we used even more fertiliser, taking two, three or more cuts of grass.

The effects on the health and welfare of the livestock are beyond the scope of this article.

By this time, the wild flowers were long gone. Dense crops of lush grass had smothered most of them. Taking two or more cuts, one early the others later, ensured that the remainder could not set seed.

What else did we lose?
The small mammals and the unfledged birds that lived in the grass were killed by the earlier, faster mowing; unable to escape. Oh, I forgot, we also lost many of the insects that relied on the wild flowers.

This was declared policy of successive Governments. All farmers in the country were encouraged to maximise output; we were the heroes of the day; feeding the nation!

Up here, in the hills, all those extra animals received subsidies, based on numbers. Bank managers rubbed their hands with glee. Farm business turnovers escalated butůso did levels of debt.

Stage Two: Degradation of Hills, Heath and Moorland
Contrary to popular opinion, few of the extra livestock were turned on to the open moors. Research shows that increases in sheep numbers were due, not to subsidies but to an earlier increase in the price of wool. Now, there was a real incentive to keep extra sheep.

Fifteen or sixteen years ago, policy changed direction. Governments began to think "green". Instead of being encouraged to produce food, we are now paid not to.

Their environmental advisers declared that the hills were "overgrazed", damaging the heather and causing loss of "biodiversity". The simple solution; pay farmers to reduce livestock numbers.

Also, refrain from traditional management practices, such as burning and predator control without written consent.

Results: sheep prefer short, sweet, grass. Therefore, with fewer grazing animals the surplus grass becomes rank and unpalatable. This has three consequences: the rank grasses smother the more delicate plants, thus causing loss of biodiversity: the sheep won't eat them from choice, so they graze the heather instead, the very shrub to be preserved: fewer animals, less dung; less dung, fewer insects; less insects, fewer little birds.

The more sheep removed the faster this occurs.

Some moor and heathland has already reverted to unsightly, non-productive scrub.

Without management, overprotected "predators" proliferate; the feathered varieties are dramatically reducing the numbers of the "prey" species. The badger robs any nest he can find on the ground.

True conservation permits control to achieve a productive balance.

Without proper management, dry dead grasses and old heather become a severe fire risk, well demonstrated in England this last two or three years.

It is proven that a well-managed grouse moor carries the highest biodiversity of plants, birds, mammals and invertebrates of any moorland. (Joint study: RSPB & Game Conservancy, published in The Journal of Applied Biology, 2001)

Research, in England and elsewhere, demonstrates why heather and other shrubs regenerate better after burning. Chemicals in the smoke from the burning parent plant activate the seed. (Heather Trust Annual Report, 2004)

Widespread research, carried out in England and Wales, on the dry matter production of the principle moorland grasses and heather, shows how one might calculate the stocking rate for any given moor in different parts of the country.

Every moor is different! (Institute of Applied Biologists 1995, 96 and 97, published 2000)

Why is all that ignored? Why must we have "one size fits all" regulations? They don't work.
I, and other farmers, are already being asked by walkers, "Where have all the sheep gone and why are the hills becoming overgrown?"

We explain patiently what is being done in the name of the taxpayer. They are, naturally, appalled. They can see it for what it is -- economic and environmental stupidity.

In effect, they pay for their food twice.

To say "I was only obeying orders" is a poor defence. I am still taking their money; I can ill afford not to. I'm guilty as charged.

Please, I beg you, for the future; let farmers, not governments, farm.

Save some of your stones for those who gave me my orders.

Richard Mawdsley farms a flock of hefted Rough Fells near Skidlaw.
They can be seen in East Cumbria in the Howgill Fells.


 
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