Conservation Herd

Guernsey, being a small island, has many demands on its limited land. Agricultural improvement, changes in land use and abandonment of marginal land have all contributed to a net loss in Guernsey’s biodiversity over recent years.

Within the past decade, 50% of Guernsey’s species-rich grasslands has been lost. This loss has resonated through the ecosystem as it affects the species which are dependent on it, such as the skylark which stopped breeding in the Island in 2010, or the meadow pipit which is in steady and long-term decline. The decline of the stonechat, starling, house sparrow and to some degree, song thrush, blackbird and finches will all have been caused or accelerated by the loss of these grasslands and the intensification of the remaining land.

Very little land in Guernsey is managed with conservation in mind.

Managed land is usually mechanically cut once or twice a year. These cuttings will then either be cleared using a collector or, if this isn’t possible they may be left and will form a thick thatch which supresses the growth of plants other than coarse grasses, reducing the area’s wildlife value.

The land outside of this may have been abandoned all together and often has reverted to a Dense Scrub habitat following the establishment of species such as brambles and blackthorn. This habitat is of much less ecological value than the habitat it replaces.

If land has remained in agricultural use, it is likely to have been ‘improved’. Modern commercial agricultural practices seek to gain as much as possible from the land – it may be sprayed with fertilisers, herbicides or perhaps ploughed and reseeded regularly with modern grass strains. The conditions brought about by these practices will not be suitable for the majority of flora and fauna found on unimproved grasslands. Only ‘improvement’ tolerant species can withstand this management. Delicate, and often rare, species will be lost. Due to the loss of diversity in fields used for commercial agricultural, we must now rely on marginal and semi-natural land to support the majority of the island’s biodiversity.

WHY GRAZE?
So why use cattle grazing instead of the land management practices currently employed?

  • Cattle are selective grazers, meaning that they will eat some species but will leave others ungrazed, creating an uneven structure to the sward that cannot be achieved by cutting.
  • The areas which are left ungrazed become taller and tussocky providing shelter for small mammals, invertebrates and birds.
  • Nutrient-rich grasses are preferentially grazed by cattle which reduce their dominance allowing more delicate herbaceous flowering plants, such as orchids and buttercups to establish.
  • The dunging events by cattle provide a microhabitat and valuable food source for a variety of invertebrates which in turn are a food source for bats, hedgehogs and birds. Dunging events also redistribute nutrients around a field.
  • The removal of vegetation by grazing will redistribute the nutrients in a grassland and, over many years, may reduce the nutrient content sufficiently to allow delicate plants which only thrive on impoverished sites to re-establish.
  • Trampling by cattle produces bare patches of ground which allows space for seeds within the soil to germinate and also provides a habitat for ants and solitary wasps and bees

All of this contributes towards creating the diverse sward structure essential for maintaining a diverse ecosystem

The most common alternative to grazing is mechanical cutting – this produces a uniform, single height grassland and will impact on annual plant species more than grasses. It is also more difficult for mobile species to avoid being destroyed by the mowers. The use of large, heavy machinery can lead to soil compaction which will reduce water retention, plant growth and invertebrate populations.

It will result in a single, even cut which may eliminate less mobile fauna from the field and reduces the diversity of the grassland structure. If the cuttings aren’t removed from the site, they will build up and form a dense thatch, through which no new species can germinate and delicate forbs are smothered.

Without any intervention grasslands become tall and rank and the delicate species are shaded-out. If left for substantial periods of time the grassland will become established with scrubby species, such as bracken, bramble and gorse.

This natural change from grassland to woodland is known as succession and will occur on most land not subjected to regular disturbance. Scrub and woodland are themselves important habitats for many species but they are more abundant and support a lower diversity than the grasslands they will replace. If succession were allowed to take place on all of Guernsey’s grasslands this habitat would be lost and with it the orchids, butterflies, birds and other animals which call grasslands home.

THE HERD
The Conservation Herd was established in 2014 in order to address these conservation concerns. The first four animals were born and reared on a local farm and were first introduced to a La Société́ Nature Reserve in September 2014.

As farming on Guernsey is mostly Dairy there is only a very small market for local beef. Due to this there is little demand for bull calves and so most are slaughtered shortly after being born. Not only does this mean that there is a ready supply of calves for this herd, these calves are also being provided with the opportunity for a longer and useful life span.

As the calves grow, their diet is supplemented with rough hay cut from La Société́ reserves so that their rumens develop to be able to digest the rough, coarse grasses they will be grazing later in the year.

Their temperaments are also assessed to ensure that they respond well to any external stimulus they are likely to encounter when grazing public land and they are trained to respect electric fencing and to follow a bucket of feed. By April each year they are old enough and strong enough to be turned out to the La Société nature reserves.

THE LIFE OF A COW

At 12 weeks old the steers will be moved to one of La Société’s reserves. They will be supplied with water and be checked on regularly by a stockman. When the site has been grazed they will be moved to the next site.

They graze species-rich grasslands from spring to autumn and then they are moved to winter lay-back lands: large grass-rich sites supplemented by hay.

In autumn each year two steers will be sent for slaughter. The beef that is produced is sold to raise money to ensure the herd is sustainable. It is ethical, sustainable and locally produced food.

COMMUNITY MATTERS: ENGAGING THE PUBLIC IN RUNNING THE HERD

It is important to engage the public in conservation schemes such as this so that the community can feel an ownership in the herd and pride in the results to their natural environment which in turn provides a valuable experience for the community. When communities are engaged, they will be more likely to protect the welfare of the herd and provide feedback both positive and negative, for example the flowering of an interesting plant or damage to fencing, this will inform more effective management of the herd and the habitat.

The public’s current relationship with the environment is one in which a large proportion see it as a resource for their enjoyment and an amenity in which to walk and enjoy beautiful views without much thought into what management strategies are required to maintain Guernsey’s diverse, and often nationally important habitats. Engaging the public will add to the understanding of the landscape and the unique nature of Guernsey.

The Conservation Herd can form a link within the community between the amenity value of the environment and important issues which will allow it to remain a functional habitat. To allow the herd to become this link, we first need to engage the public with it.

EDUCATION
Now the herd has become established we are looking to engage other members of the community, such as local Schools, youth groups and interested parties. To date we have already created links with the Youth Commission, local schools and participants of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards.

As an organisation, La Société́ is keen to educate young and old in Guernsey’s heritage, natural history and environmental issues. We hope to run courses using the herd as an educational tool. Our vision is that the herd will be visited by groups such as Cubs and Guides, Schoolchildren of all ages and graduates undertaking further study, each group will have different learning needs and there will be a choice of resources available. It is envisaged that the project will offer the possibility for learners to be given out-of-classroom opportunities to reinforce learning and assist with differentiation and enrichment activities. We also hope to develop this aspect in the future to include educational classes for children and young adults with behavioural difficulties and those out of full time education or employment.

Traditional grazing with Guernsey cattle is an important part of Guernsey’s local heritage which much less common now than in previous years. This project may work in a way similar to a working museum, teaching the community about using local breeds and traditional management techniques. The meat can be bought in a shop and traced back to the grazing herd and its high animal welfare. People will be able see the restoration of damaged habitats and a functional area of land producing a valuable commodity over time.

WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
A thriving herd, an increase in biodiversity and the engagement of Guernsey’s community, young and old.