Grazing stock outside this winter is unlikely to breach cross-compliance rules, provided pastures contain more than 25% ryegrass, white clover or other plants indicative of cultivation and animal welfare is not compromised.

Despite suggestions that any damage caused by stock would contravene cross-compliance rules, Kingshay consultant David Pettitt says as long as damaged areas can be fully reinstated within 12 months there should be no problem.

“Most of the confusion stems from the definition of natural or semi-natural habitats.

These are grasslands which would require an environmental impact assessment before cultivation could take place,” he says.

Using ringfeeders on grasslands not requiring an EIA should not breach the rules either, he believes.

“Where ringfeeders have been used historically it is unlikely the area they are sited on will be EIA grassland, so siting them in similar positions to previous years shouldn’t be a problem.

“In many situations it may be better to keep ring feeders in one spot rather than moving them,” he advises.

This will limit damage to one area of the field, which can be rectified.

But care should be taken to avoid excessive damage to soil structure, so feeders should, ideally, be placed on free-draining ground on level sites.

Perth-based SAC consultant Iain Riddell says the best way to avoid cross-compliance issues when outwintering stock is to ensure fields are set-up correctly before weather deteriorates.

“When the plan is to supplement stock with forage in the form of round bales, it is possible to lay them out in autumn and allow access as needed.”

This avoids the need for vehicles to travel on fields later in winter when there is more chance of damage being done and helps to limit run-off, he says.

To further limit the impact of field run-off, Mr Pettitt advises fencing off strips alongside ditches and rivers to provide buffer strips to stop manure reaching watercourses.

And, while late season grass will be of low quality, requiring supplementary feeding, leaving stock outside can be far better for stock health than housing, says Mr Riddell.

“There is evidence showing that cattle perform just as well when outwintered and Irish research has shown growing and finishing cattle do better outside than when housed.”

But when aiming for long-term outwintering there needs to be a back-up plan in case of extreme weather, says Mr Riddell.

When dairy cattle, such as dry cows, are outwintered, Mr Pettitt says preventing environmental mastitis infections should be a priority.

“Barrier teat sealants will be particularly useful in preventing such infections.

Foot problems may also cause difficulties, but these are unlikely to be any worse than in housed cattle.