By Ann Chinner
There are Highland Cattle are in Southwick and Fineshade Woods for a conservation grazing project - a mutually beneficial partnership between Forestry England (FE) who manage the woods, and Ann Chinner and her Highland Cattle. In this blog article Ann explains the theory behind the project and describes some of the successes so far.
Ann is a retired, career civil servant. She has kept pedigree Highland cattle since 2006, both around the village of Apethorpe, which has been her home for many years, and in Aberdeenshire where she spent 5 years before returning, with her Highlanders, in 2020. Ann is a trustee of the Highland Cattle Society.
Historically Southwick Wood included a large area of cow pasture. Under FE’s management this has been planted mainly with English oak but, at the start of Ann’s tenure in 2020, it was also generally overgrown with bramble, thorn and elder.
In fact, there was probably considerably more than 50% ground coverage by these species. Control of the invasive plants is important for access to existing trees and for further commercial tree planting so FE has an obvious interest in regaining control at the lowest cost.
One of the cattle beginning to clear bramble
Similarly, the pasture in the Assarts, Fineshade Wood, has been used to graze cattle and sheep over many generations. It is not now suitable for commercial tree planting because a large water-main runs beneath it and FE are keen to see it used once again for grazing. (There is more about Assarts Farm on the Friends of Fineshade website).
This is part of a wider FE District Plan to use native breeds for often short periods for particular requirements on SSSI land. FE needs to be able to provide breeders with alternative land to move their animals on to when the SSSI purpose is served. So in this case land at Fineshade provides seasonal grazing for 6 months.
Young steers grazing at Fineshade
Highland cattle are well known for their conservation grazing abilities. They are able to digest and clear rough vegetation that other cattle and sheep cannot, and over time this allows a greater diversity of meadow and woodland plants to flourish. Their horns give them enhanced ability to access and clear vegetation.
Ceit, mother of Ceitie, enjoying her browsing session
They are also a relatively small breed which means they are lighter on the ground. They rub on trees and browse low hanging leaves but they do not bite or gouge bark. They do though, remove dead branches as they move through the wood which has a future economic benefit for commercial timber production.
In 2019, with the enthusiastic support of Scott Martin, the FE Beat Forester, Ann took a 3-year lease on land within Southwick Wood –23 hectares with a separate 2 hectare paddock. Later a 4-month summer grazing lease was granted for another large area of Southwick Wood. These areas, taken together, make up around c45 hectares.
In late February 2020 Ann brought her fold (herd) of 35 Highlanders, including a bull, down from Scotland and moved them into Rockingham Forest. Ann established the fold in 2006. All the cattle are pedigree registered with the Highland Cattle Society. Some are from the late Queen’s private fold at Balmoral and most were home-bred from the founding cows. All had tested negative for the usual range of cattle diseases, including TB.
Almost immediately there was much to be optimistic about. Relationships with FE were excellent, based on very regular communication and an understanding of each other’s needs and priorities. Visible commitment resulted in a feeling of joint ownership of the outcomes and some very useful, quick results. They immediately noticed changes in the flora, for instance. The cattle are very content, much admired and calves began to be produced.
Three years later around 15 hectares of Southwick Wood have been cleared of bramble. There are now 15 cows, one bull and 26 younger Highland animals including 2022-born calves. The bramble has been cleared mechanically and the cattle have kept the re-growth completely in check, allowing routine topping only over the summers of 2021 and 2022.
Cleared area at Southwick
This is better progress than we could have hoped for and the cleared areas now look like meadow again, although it would still be described as rough grazing. The cattle are supplementary-fed hay from mid-November to the end of March when very little natural forage is available apart from bramble. But, interestingly, weened calves seem to prefer eating bramble to hay over the winter months, so steady, incremental progress is being made in reducing the remaining bramble by entirely natural means.
There is no evidence of negative cattle impact on trees. No bark or root damage, no poaching around the base of trees and no evidence of damage to tree structure. The cattle browse low-hanging branches and anything blown down by high winds. They use the trees to scratch but this does not negatively impact them. They do, however, as anticipated, remove dead branches from established trees as they move through the wood, all of which is helpful to FE’s commercial work.
There are no welfare issues and all animals are healthy and content. Routine annual TB testing, has been clear and the vet has commented on the very good condition of the cattle. He also remarked on how unusual and wonderful it is to see cattle in such a natural, semi-wild setting.
Morag with her first calf born 5 May 2020
In 2021 the Wildlife Trust bought 4 of the fold’s 2019-born heifers for conservation grazing purposes in Old Sulehay, less than 10 miles away.
Highlanders are now beef cattle, although their history has been dual-purpose milk and beef when kept on crofts in Scotland years ago. Ann sells her beef privately and locally and the marketing material makes it clear the Highland cattle are grazed naturally on FE land. The public is becoming more and more aware of the provenance of food so the partnership is beneficial for FE’s public image. The beef sells extremely well; so well that there is currently a waiting list, demonstrating that even in such a short time, a good reputation and viable business can be built.
Ceitie, born April 2020, under the watchful gaze of her aunt
Both Ann and FE are very hopeful more natural plant and animal diversity will be achieved during the life of this project and they are always keen to see what new growth the summer brings. There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future and about this kind of symbiotic relationship between FE and native-breed farmers.