“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” – Dr. Brewster Higley (1874)
This is not exactly the Hebridean equivalent of the Great Plains, but it is an example of unimproved grassland and although it looks like a completely natural habitat, it is the product of careful grazing management. If left unattended it would eventually become dominated by tussocky, coastal grasses and most of the wild flowers would disappear. Conservation grazing management is as much an art as a science, and after 12 years of trial and error, we think that we have finally got the management of the headland about right, but some of the other fields are still a work in progress.
Early risers and aficionados of the BBC4 radio programme Farming Today, will immediately understand the title of my post and, if they are of a certain age, the opening quotation. Over time we have improved the biodiversity and quality of our coastal grassland, but we still think we could do better. Two years ago, we decided to change our grassland management and introduced a modified system of rotational and range grazing. This mimics the way that wild herbivores range over grassland in response to forage and water supply, and other factors such as predators and seasonal changes in the weather. It allows selective grazing, which creates a more heterogeneous habitat and reduces problems of pasture degredation associated with restricting animal movements. This is not a new idea, although the agricultural policy makers have now given it a new name (agroecology) and are trying to sell it as agricultures answer to climate change!
Range grazing on a croft of 12 hectares is not exactly on the same scale as the Great Plains or the Serengeti, but some of the same principles can be applied. A small flock of Hebridean sheep are used to winter graze the lower-fields and are moved between them on a regular basis. We have also reduced the grass cutting to an absolute minimum and use a quadbike and hand-raking to limit the damage to the sward and prevent wind erosion. On the headland we are using a small herd of six native breed cattle (Galloways and Belted-Galloways) which are hardy enough to cope with our Hebridean winters and graze from October to February without any supplemental feeding. Using a low stocking density of small cattle enables the animals to develope a natural free-range grazing pattern.
This is all very interesting, but what has it to do with gardening? The answer is Monty Don and his views on lawn maintenance. Conservation grazing may not be the most practical solution, but the principles can be applied. A few daisies and the odd buttercup or dandelion with some soft, green moss is more wildlife friendly and less sterile than a perfectly manicured, rectangle of emerald turf and the “Don’t Walk on the Grass” sign. Lock the mower in the shed, throw away the lawn feed and borrow a couple of grazers!
Douglas, the Manx ram and two of his ladies, who “mow” the grass between our garden boundary and the stock fence. In addition to producing perfectly cut grass they also supply the manure!
If these are a little too big, you could always try a family of Guinea pigs.