Grazing moorland with traditional hill livestock, combined with innovative low-cost techniques, may be as profitable as conventional upland sheep and beef farms and help improve habitat condition, an 8-year project on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the fringe of Exmoor National Park has concluded.
The newly published findings form part of Graze the Moor – a unique collaboration between The Molland Estate, Exmoor National Park Authority, the Heather Trust, Natural England, local land owners and farmers, and leading academics and conservation bodies.*
With the government’s future Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELM) due to be rolled out in 2024, the findings offer reassurance to upland farmers that scaling up delivery of environmental benefits and other ‘public goods’ is achievable without damaging the business. This will be critical in National Parks, where traditional farming techniques are relied on to sustain and enhance the landscape.
Sarah Bryan, Chief Executive of Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “The landscape today has been shaped by centuries of farming, with traditional ways of caring for the land creating opportunities for nature to thrive alongside iconic scenery quintessential of Exmoor. Graze the Moor has helped demonstrate how a grassroots approach involving all those who care about the moor can work to deliver meaningful results for the environment. This resonates with how farming subsidy is likely to work in the future and, in supporting these kinds of projects, we hope to bring that vision closer.”
Around 75 per cent of the world’s heather moorland exists in the UK. But this is in steep decline, with the Molland Estate’s own vegetation records indicating a drop of more than half (56.2 per cent) since 1947. A decline in traditional grazing management appears to be the major factor, but air pollution and climate change have also been implicated.
An overarching aim of the project was to find a solution to the dramatic loss of grazed heather, which over the years is being replaced by gorse, bracken and Molinia grass, and the increase in diseases associated with sheep ticks. In recent decades, these factors have contributed to many upland farmers turning to more intensive farming systems, leaving an uncertain future for this rare and iconic landscape.
Christina Williams, owner of the Molland Estate and project founder, said: “It had become apparent that farmers were seeing the moor as a burden, rather than an essential part of their farming enterprise. The moor was literally becoming disconnected from the people living around it who had the knowledge, skills and experience to look after it.
“Eight years later, I can say it has been a rollercoaster ride. At times, I have felt that we have hundreds of hectares of good young heather, and at other times, I see nothing but Molinia, heather beetle devastation and well-intentioned misunderstanding. However, it has been an excellent and trusting partnership and we all have learnt a lot from each other.”
Natural England granted an exemption from restrictions that limit the amount of time cattle can graze on the open moor, permitting the reinstatement of winter grazing. The project partners worked to codesign a bespoke grassroots approach, based on the multi-generational experience of local people in managing the land combined with the latest environmental and land management strategies.
Traditional hill breeds, such as Galloway cattle and Welsh mountain sheep, were selected for their hardiness to allow livestock to thrive on the moor year-round. Deployed in this way, grazing livestock can play an important role in controlling invasive species, such as Molinia grass and bracken, that are known to stifle biodiversity.
Grazing management was combined with other methods, such as cutting, herbicide sprays, controlled burning, bracken bruising and reseeding with heather. A ‘Snacker feeder’ was used to encourage movement of livestock and limit localised overgrazing, at the same time as providing some additional feed for livestock.
Steve Langdon, who farms on Molland moor with his son Richard at Luckworthy Farm, said: “The Galloway cattle have adapted well to the conditions of Molland Moor, and we feel we have improved the habitat up there. It does work having the cattle on the moor and the public like seeing them, which brings along interest in Exmoor. We have found it really helpful working in conjunction with our landlord with this project, and various different agencies, for everyone’s benefit. We hope the government sees this as a real need to promote the notion that moorland grazing is an asset and not a liability to hill farming, and so continuing to manage this special landscape.”
Ecological monitoring was carried out throughout the project by Natural England and a sheep tick survey to quantify any impact on disease burden was carried out by Professor Roy Brown, R & D Applied Biology. The final two years incorporated a thorough economic analysis by Professor Janet Dwyer, Director of the Countryside & Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire, and Dr Allan Butler Senior Lecturer in Economics at Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.
Rachel Thomas, Chairman of the Exmoor Society, said: “Through the re-introduction of traditional moorland management, the landscape beauty of Molland Moor, with its stunning views, is being restored.
“The perception of wildness and tranquility has been improved through restricting the expansion of gorse, bracken, brambles, rowan and thorn trees. The control of the expansion of Molinia has encouraged the regrowth of heather, and this has led to a retention of moorland species, insects and birds, adding further aesthetic qualities to the landscape.”