At Home on the Range…..

“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” – Dr. Brewster Higley (1874)

Summer Grassland  - Ardivachar, South Uist
Summer Grassland – Ardivachar, South Uist

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!

Galloway and Belted Galloway heifers with calves
Galloway and Belted Galloway heifers with calves

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.

Hebridean sheep
Hebridean sheep
Grass cutting
Grass cutting

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!

Manx tup
Manx ewes

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.

12 thoughts on “At Home on the Range…..

  1. it was really interesting to read the details of the conservation grazing programme you have introduced and honed – but I am afraid I let out a sigh at the end of your post…both of my daughters and I go weak at the knees at the mere mention of guinea pigs (pogglepogs to us!) and one or both them will succumb when the time is right (no more livestock for us, thank you very much though, but I will enjoy visiting theirs!). You will be pleased to know that our ‘streamside grass’ is only cut about twice a year, and with hand shears…

    • My father “inherited” most of my sisters’ pets at various times and used to corral the Guinea pigs on the lawn!

      • As a child, we didn’t have any pets until my elder sister was allowed a dog in her late teens but he quickly became a liability. My girls and I all loved guinea pigs, but they went through gerbils, mice and rats too – but It was still usually me who did the cleaning out!

        • Family pets are always loved by children and cared for by the parents!

  2. What a great post, and really impressive to see what results you’ve achieved and how you manage it. A topic very close to my own heart and which has spun off into a management approach to much of our garden – plant communities rather than plonked plants, leading to greater biodiversity all round. And tolerant of everything (well most things) that the climate can chuck at you!
    best wishes

    • I was aware that you managed your own land on similar lines and it is interesting that this has spread to your garden. It is not as easy as it might seem, but your impressive swathes of naturalised plants are a testament to its success.

  3. I knew our rustic ‘lawn’, 75% moss, would come back into fashion one day..
    Would love the grazers though. Give the pheasants, rabbits and squirrels a run for their money too.

    • I never really saw the point of spending so much time to turn an interesting piece of grassland into a something as boring as a lawn. Especially one with mown stripes!

  4. Interesting to hear about rotational grazing. We are still unsure what to do about our large grassy expanse as mice have been a torment to newly planted trees and hedging. So we kept it all short last summer after having it mown by a farmer two or three times in the two previous years. And ticks are another problem here.

    • ECo gardening is not without it’s problems. We have a rabbit exclusion zone, but also have problems with mice – burrowing rather than nibbling! Could could try using a system of mowing different sections at different times – this would give you a mosaic. I think it is just a case of experimentation and trying to discover what works.

      • We did that in one area two years ago… looked lovely. I think we will probably mow everything for another year though as some more trees and shrubs are going in… We have put up poles with perches for the birds of prey (of which there are plenty here) and they are already using them for hunting. So that is good!

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