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Detonated Summer – Conservation Grazing

Held back, waiting, cool days feeling more like autumn.

Then summer just detonated and caught up with itself, compressing into one week, hampered vegetation finally released from bondage. Mildly shaggy hedgerows and fields have turned to full blown fireworks.

And the jet stream has finally gone north and we sigh in collective relief.

A warm breeze, sun on the face. Heat.

Wildflower Bank

The sunny bank on the roadside. It used to be dominated with nettle, bramble and an escaped mint. Lots more species now.


I thought this might be a good time to explain a little more about what we’re doing here on the farm. At this time of year we are busy with habitat management. This basically means pulling out species which have a propensity to become dominant, so that a wider variety of wild plants can get a foothold.

oxeye daisies

To help things along we haven’t fertilised the land for over ten years, as wild flowers are not too keen on this. Too much fertility allows the more thuggish species to ascend, shading out their more delicate cousins with their lush foliage and rapidly advancing root mats.

wild flowers


It all needs to be cut at the right time too, after flowering and seeding, and before it becomes rank and wet in autumn.

wild flowers


The cows are all part of this management regime, they are ‘conservation’ grazers.


Traditional English Herefords

What is Conservation Grazing? I hear you ask.

Conservation grazing is one that benefits wildlife, landscape and cultural heritage. It is designed to meet nature conservation objectives – which in our case is to optimize sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.

rabbit in meadow

Actually rabbits are not the small mammals to which I was referring but I like the picture so it’s in.
Rabbits cause damage to landscape features such as hedgebanks.
And did you know they have something in their urine which prevents grass from growing. Clever.


Elderflower champagne

Why graze?

In the UK nearly all the areas which we value for conservation interest form part of cultural landscapes created by humans, often as a side product of subsistence agriculture. Grazing livestock and associated activities played a key role in the formation and maintenance of many semi-natural habitats including grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland, through slowing the successional trajectory of these habitats towards increased woodland cover.

sparrow fledgling

A very noisy sparrow fledgling almost ready to fly

In addition to maintaining or restoring such habitats, grazing is also an essential component of many habitat (re)creation projects, for example managed reversion from arable fields to species-rich grassland or the recreation of heathland.

wild meadow

Grass in the Triangle Field – quite a few species don’t you think? Not brilliant, but going in the right direction.

Livestock affect vegetation communities through removal of biomass. This allows less competitive species to become established as dominant plant species are reduced. Trampling also creates areas of bare ground, which may be suitable for plant regeneration from seed or seedbanks, and are beneficial for invertebrates and herptiles.

wild meadow

Together with grazing and browsing, physical damage to vegetation from lying, rolling and pushing can also increase structural diversity. High grazing pressure may limit scrub expansion and in some cases reduce scrub cover. Many invertebrate species are also dependent on the dung that livestock produce (over 250 species of insects are found in or on cattle dung in the UK), while dunging patterns can result in the redistribution of nutrients.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

A cows tail is very useful in the heat. Swish swish.

There are many examples of species that benefit from grazing. Many individual plant species benefit, while habitats such as flower-rich meadows are dependent on grazing. Ground-nesting wading birds such as lapwing or snipe need grazing to create the varied sward structure needed to fledge their young successfully. A number of species of bats including both species of horseshoe bat depend on a mixture of invertebrate-rich habitats in which to forage, including grazed pasture and meadows.

wild flowers

See that window? That’s where the bats come and eat the moths which gather near the light. Sometimes better than TV. Poor moths. But happy bats. And good moth habitat…

What can conservation grazing achieve?

Many conservation organisations now have their own livestock or work closely with local farmers to ensure that grazing continues on wildlife sites that need it. At the same time, farmers are encouraged through Environmental Stewardship to use grazing regimes that will benefit wildlife. A growing number of farmers and other land managers (that would be us) are making a conscious decision to tailor grazing management on their lands to meet nature conservation objectives.

wild flowers

In addition to a wildlife-rich countryside, conservation grazing can deliver substantial benefits to local communities. Local production of good quality meat and dairy produce with high welfare standards is a key outcome of many conservation grazing schemes. Such schemes can play a role in rejuvenating rural economies while using traditional rural skills such as stock husbandry which are in decline. Visitors to grazed sites with public access often enjoy watching free-ranging animals, and in some cases enjoy becoming involved as voluntary stock checkers, helping to keep an eye on livestock.

Traditional English Hereford

When it’s really hot there’s only one place to be. Next time you see a field of cows with no shade or shelter think of this.

So conservation grazing is not about looking back to a ‘golden age’ where rural practices optimized biodiversity, but looking forward to ways in which sustainable management of the countryside will benefit both the wildlife and the communities who live there.

Old Iron Implements

Another kind of conservation…


The above text is an edited version from The Grazing Animals Project


So, that is mainly what we are doing with the cows (apart from loving them of course). As Francis Pryor says in his book The Making of the British Landscape it really doesn’t take that long to improve biodiversity and habitat with the right management. He’s also a WordPress blogger.

When they have their calves in approximately a year’s time we will have to make a decision about what to do next. Apart from trying to conserve this rare breed (that’s the cultural heritage) there’s the question of the male calves. Taking Herald to the abbatoir was a bit of an eye opener. As a meat eater I hadn’t really thought too hard about the grisly business of slaughter and it has had quite an impact on me. It was also the sheer number of animals going through which was pretty horrific – all to satisfy our desire to eat meat whenever we choose.

Livestock breeds poster in barn

I started reading around the subject in an attempt to process all the confusing emotions which it stirred and in the end decided that there is an argument for eating some meat – just not all the time and much better to be savoured as something special. Ex vegetarian and environmental campaigner Simon Fairlie argues in his book Meat, A Benign Extravagance that it is far better environmentally to eat a small amount of locally sourced meat than to constantly eat flown in vegetarian staples or luxuries such as baby corns and mange tout which are often produced by poor countries where the people are hungry.

Livestock do a very useful job in taking care of huge amounts of vegetation which we are unable to process and meat is highly nutritious and scores very highly on a weight to weight comparison with other foods. However, he is keen to point out, this is not a green light to eat as much meat as one desires, just that it should be occasionally, local and be reared to high welfare standards. It’s not always easy to find and identify this kind of meat so a lot needs to change on this front but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Light on wall

This amazing light pattern was caused by a pan lid.

There is a really good review of it here if you’re intrigued. A very interesting book to read though slightly heavy on the figures but these are needed to prove the environmental impact studies.

Anyway, it has meant a change in eating habits around here. We were never huge consumers of meat but now most meals are vegetarian. And although we always bought local meat, vigilance has been stepped up.

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather

There is loitering on the stairs in hot weather


Simon Fairlie also imports Austrian scythes which have been made at the same place since the 1500’s. I had a go on one the other day and it was really light and user friendly. Visit the Scythe Shop to find out more about them. They are expensive but you couldn’t find a better bit of kit. I managed to scythe a few square metres in a matter of a minute. Better still, go to the Scythe Festival in Somerset which is held every year in June.




It’s not all work work work though… !


Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide

Swimming at Bossiney Haven at high tide

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Katherine Kearns #

    Fancy that! I’ve just spent a very hot hour weeding sow thistle and fat hen from a perennial ‘pictorial meadow’. A bit of habitat management but with high viz flowers to satisfy the constant stream of traffic passing by a roundabout. Time for an ice cream.

    July 9, 2013
    • Brave! I got to a job this morning at 7.30 and only managed a couple of hours before the retreat. I love those pictorial meadows, what perennials are you using?

      July 9, 2013
  2. Rhonda Crowe #

    Sarah, this is a very informative post! Thank you for sharing. I am thrilled (though not surprised 🙂 to hear about your concerns for a high standard of animal welfare. I have been vegetarian for many years and my husband (even though I realize he will never give up meat entirely) is making more choices to skip the meat and do more vegs. And I didn’t know about the rabbit urine! We have many rabbits around and now I have an explanation for some of those bare spots that I come across! You have been on my mind with the loss of your dear friend – I hope you are finding peace while cherishing the wonderful memories you have of her. Also, I do understand how hard it has to be to come to terms with the loss of Herald, knowing the plans you had for him on the farm. It is good to see the ladies again – the “cow tail” picture is precious 🙂 Please give them a good pat for me. Take care.

    July 9, 2013
    • Aw many thanks Rhonda. Day to day life rolls on and then I’m suddenly overcome – I guess that’s just the process. I think those bare patches must be the rabbits! It’s because they don’t like/ can’t eat long grass. I’m so pleased you like the cow tail pic…one of my favourites 🙂 hope you’re enjoying the summer too. I went to a café this morning and chose the veggie breakfast…a first.

      July 12, 2013
  3. Rabbits urine prevents grass from growing? Way to do yourself out of habitat numpty rabbits! I guess it’s natures way of natural selection ;). Steve and I had a go of a scythe when we were attending Polytechnic in the early years of our horticultural forray into the real world. It was great fun and entirely doable but it did take a whole lot more time. I dare say you would earn your evening meal and your size 8 pants if you used one on a regular basis ;). Love the beach shot, the water is the same colour as the water in Western Australia (my home state). I hope the water was delicious, nothing like the beach on a hot sunny day :).

    July 9, 2013
    • The water was delicious and for once it was a relief to get in rather than a gritted teeth endurance….it’s pretty cold!

      Actually rabbits can’t eat long grass so it’s pretty advanced 🙂

      I think if you’re an expert scything is quicker but it takes time to learn. Obviously you couldn’t compete with a tractor but definitely with a trimmer or a lawn mower. At the festival they have competitive scything…don’t stand in the way 😉 You would definitely be very fit!

      July 12, 2013
      • Might be the way to go to deal with our forge-me-not problem and get my upper body exercise at the same time! You might be onto something :). If I decided to take a small dip in the Tamar (aside from being cut to ribbons by oysters before I GOT to the water that is…) I would probably last about 20 minutes before I succumbed to frost bite! Best wait till the heat of summer for me :). I didn’t know that about rabbits. We are the only property in Sidmouth that isn’t whinging and complaining about rabbit infestations. On our walks in the morning we see the steep embankments littered with last nights digging and they are starting to erode the embankments and reveal the tree roots. Here on Serendipity Farm we have a feral cat problem. We DON’T have a rabbit problem. Maybe we can share the feral cat love around (like whoever tossed the first pregnant one over our fence did! 😉 ).

        July 12, 2013
    • You need my friend H! She’s a vet and she is on a mission to neuter all feral cats in the UK…. a lot her leisure time is taken up with trapping them. She could use your kitchen table as an operating theatre! Surely some cat charity would stump up the cash for an air fare for free neutering 🙂 She’s got stories to tell. Irish. Don’t expect her to do the dead deed though…a place she just will not go 😉

      I’m going to have to start eating rabbits…though they don’t have much nutrition apart from protein.

      July 14, 2013
      • Protein has its benefits, at least you won’t bulk up on it or fall asleep after a rabbit breakfast! ;). I WISH I could import your friend here myself! What fun we would have…our feral’s are a problem that no-one wants to deal with. We have been told “bring them in once you catch them” to the local R.S.P.C.A. but they want to charge us for the hire of a trap and it’s a 100km round trip and there is no WAY we are going to catch all 13 cats in one small trap. We have grown somewhat fond of them and they definitely kill the rodent population. No rabbits and not a single mouse or rat to be heard scratching in the walls BUT there are too many of them. 13 cats…most of them black…middle aged hippies and the woman gets up early in the morning doing goodness only knows what! We are going to get a name around here! ;). We would rather not kill them either but the alternative is that several of them are pregnant again (they are self pollinating now 😦 ) so when is this going to end? We haven’t managed to find an ethical solution so far. I know that any population has a crisis point and I think we are about to see it arrive soon. Our neighbours blame us for the problem because we feed them a small amount of food (to stop them eating all of our native birds and our chooks) but what is the alternative? We are between a rock and a hard place. I told the neighbour “do what you will on your side of the fence, it’s a communal problem and we didn’t throw that small pregnant female cat over our fence in the first place!” She had 2 male kittens (from different litters) when we rocked up so someone dumped her initially. The problem lies with irresponsible owners who couldn’t give a damn about neutering their cats and then making them someone else’s problem. Still no wiser as to what to do with them but it’s a tough call for a vegan animal lover to make 😦

        July 14, 2013
  4. Enjoy your lovely weather, it’s freezing here although I do have some winter flowering plants, one called happy wanderer which produces lots of purple flowers, thank god for small mercies, brrrrr

    July 9, 2013
    • Wrap up warm …. though surely it can’t be as bad as a dank dark endless uk winter…remember those? 😉 x x

      July 12, 2013
  5. What a lovely, instructive journey I feel like I was just on! So not only are the girls adorable, they have such purpose! Love this — and the gorgeous glimpses of summer meadows.

    July 10, 2013
    • Glad you enjoyed the meander through the meadows….hay making next!

      July 12, 2013
  6. Thank you for this post! A very informative and educational morning read (with tea), and a perfect distraction to further avoid this disaster-stricken bedroom I find myself in 😉 Ahaa. Love your pictures, the last one is calling me home…! x

    July 10, 2013
    • Have you been throwing your things about again B? 😉 you’re obviously working far too hard. Yes, when are you home?

      July 12, 2013
      • Throwing things out? Why, it’s what I do best! I’ll have to thank a gene from my Mum for that 😉 Fingers crossed it isn’t the super gene, else I’ll start throwing other people’s things out too… lol. Friends wedding end of October – planning a return for that! x

        July 21, 2013
  7. Such an interesting post. Relevant, too, as I’ve just made a move to a local farmer who provides beef, pork, chicken and eggs from a farm that has established this sort of practice. They rotate pastures, use their chickens to keep their gardens healthy, and so on and so forth.

    I’m not a vegetarian and never will be, but on the other hand I’m far from a meat every night sort. I will say that the bacon, chicken breasts and eggs from “my” farm are the best I’ve ever eaten. And they have organic veggies, too – the tomatoes, squash, figs and blackberries are in now. Soon there will be corn and beans – and melons!

    Honestly, I think that the best way to encourage people to think about their food choices more seriously is to provide them with an experience of “real” food – let them taste what we grew up with and took for granted, until it wasn’t available any more. Now, it’s coming back, and good agricultural practices are helping to make it possible.

    I smiled at a few references to the advantages of bare earth and so on. Many of our wildflowers do best in what’s called “disturbed ground”. I don’t know why that should be so, but it certainly means that if you want to collect big bouquets of sunflowers, a trip to a construction site is the best way to do it!

    July 10, 2013
    • It’s brilliant that you’ve got a local farm to get produce from. I think slowly slowly people are wanting good provenance but at the moment it is seen as too expensive. But this is a matter of perception….a lot of the time it isn’t…but I guess it can take more time as you can’t always get everything in one place.

      I think the US is so rich in wild flowers, we love them over here. My Rudbeckia hirsuta Prairie Queen are just beginning to flower! In Cornwall we have a bit of a problem with nettles….years of unhelpful management so that is what usually colonises disturbed ground. Some are good but they are definitely not sunflowers!

      Small mixed farms are actually more productive of food than big monocrop farms but there isn’t much money in it so that’s why farming has gone the way it has. I would love to see a future where mixed farms made a comeback, taking care of nature at the same time.

      July 12, 2013
  8. Scythe festival? amazing, hope it comes to peckham rye soon! Actually a lot of parks in south London are leaving increasingly large areas of grass uncut to allow wildflowers to grow. It looks good and makes sense which is also true of your post. Now we need livestock. This would be great for young people growing up in inner city areas. City parks need to be extended, knock down a few coffee shops and plant hedgerows & grazing areas, only not cafe nero at least until I’ve got my free coffee.

    July 11, 2013
    • What a brilliant idea! Can you imagine a scything contest on the Rye. That would be amazing. Come on Southwark…or even Lambeth, what about one at the country fair? I could bring my cows. Though not these ones as they would probably run amok … though possible useful as bulldozers of cafés. I’ll wait til they have calves then I’ll train them to withstand excitement.

      July 12, 2013
  9. fascinating reading – such a fine balance between humans and the land and well just everything (any eloquence has escaped me!) – and you found the right word – Detonated, summer definitely has gone up with a bang, just like my hayfever ….

    July 14, 2013
    • Oh no hayfever! For a dedicated allotment gardener like yourself that must be a real pain 😦

      I’m sure it’s possible to have a balance and feed people as well. Simon Fairlie farms on 5 acres and got more food per acre than the ‘Farmer of the Year’ – not sure which year but he gives an interesting talk about it which you can find online.

      Thanks! I bet you’re quite hot on your allotment too…

      July 14, 2013
  10. Gue' #

    Very informative post and I love the accompanying pictures. The flowers. The ‘wabbit.’

    The girls are looking happy.

    Most folks don’t think about where their food comes from or how it gets to the grocer. Having had farming folks in the family, I grew up seeing it. The kitchen garden. Butchering.

    I am married to a ‘Mr. Meat and Potatoes.’ Left to myself, I’d probably cook a meal centered on a meat main dish a two to three times a week.

    There’s more of a ‘Eat Local’ movement going on here in Charleston but, as yet, it seems mostly veggies and seafood. I’ve not really looked for a local source for meat. I think I’d have heard, if there was one. The few that may be available probably cater strictly to local restaurants and are not big enough to sell to the public.

    July 14, 2013
    • It does seem to be catching on slowly. I think it’s probably the only way forward for a sustainable future for both food production and biodiversity.

      We are lucky enough to have a couple of independent butchers in our area and all their meat is locally sourced and reared to high welfare standards. It’s quite weird though, since all this has happened I have genuinely gone off it – i think the visit to the slaughterhouse was very powerful.

      Glad you like the pictures, the ‘wabbit’ is a bit special isn’t he/she? 🙂 I should really start eating those…you can’t get more local than that! I have skinned one once, and it made me feel a bit ill! Think I need to toughen up.

      July 14, 2013
      • Gue' #

        I never could eat any of the meat, when we’d go up to Granny and Papa’s to help butcher. Put me right off it for a bit. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else, though. They all dived right in.

        Once I was home and the memory faded a bit, I was fine.

        I also liked it better when Granny would kill and pluck the Sunday dinner chicken before our arrival. She made me help her a few times and I really wimped out!

        There’s been a good bit of writing up in The Charleston City Paper (kind of a outsider weekly paper; not the regular daily paper) in the past couple of years aor so about Locovores – folks that try to eat locally with an eye to sustainability.

        July 14, 2013
    • Locovores…I like it! That’ll be entering my vocabulary very soon 🙂

      I bet that chicken was delicious though.

      July 16, 2013
  11. Wonderful post. Even though I eat some meat, we haven’t bought any in years. Although my wife is a vegetarian, I am not. But to avoid being complicit in the factory farming industrial food system, I don’t eat any meat unless we raised the animal ourselves (our unless I caught or hunted it here on our farm). I eat far less meat than I used to eat, but it’s much better tasting, much better for me, and I’m no longer contributing to the profitability a system based on animal cruelty.

    I think you’ve got it right. Eat less meat and get the meat you eat from local sources. More and more folks are going in that direction it seems.

    July 19, 2013
    • I’m now on the second month of new regime…and finding it pretty easy. The only difficulty has been when I’ve bought food on the go (which isn’t that often) – found myself reaching for the chicken or ham sandwich! But I’ve resisted. However, my cheese consumption has gone up…and some people think the dairy industry is as equally cruel. Hmm, it’s a minefield!

      Thanks for the visit and the comment you are most welcome.

      July 21, 2013

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