9 November 2001

A CHANCE TO EASE GRAZING PRESSURE

In its draft document on the future of farming, the

Welsh Assembly says sheep monoculture has damaged

the uplands. Liz Mason looks at how the experience

of foot-and-mouth could help to relieve the pressure

from sheep grazing across the UK.

FOOT-and-mouths aftermath may give farmers, the conservation bodies and government a chance to work together to resolve one of the longest-running issues in UK agriculture.

For years, ecologists have argued that over-grazing by sheep in particular has damaged some of the UKs most precious upland vegetation. Now that F&M has removed some of those sheep, conservationists and ministers are keen to sit down with farmers and discuss how re-stocking could help to prevent over-grazing.

Officials at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have already realised the potential for doing something about over-grazing by re-opening the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) for all those farms which were culled out during F&M. In areas such as the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, farmers compensated for the cull had two choices, says Frances Winder, agriculture policy officer for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

"They could either think I have all this money to spend on sheep and buy them in immediately as lambs. Or they could develop an age structure to the flocks by buying in gradually."

&#42 Near infected areas

Some farmers who are still near infected areas probably wont be able to re-stock until next year and for them CSS could provide an income. For farmers who re-stock at this autumns sales, age structuring would give them time to consider whether they needed as many sheep on the fells, she believes.

"Even if they go into CSS, because F&M has caused a stock shortage it may be difficult to achieve the right stocking level. Age re-structuring would give them time to build up to the right densities, and we are hoping that DEFRA will write this into the re-opened CSS." Age re-structuring would also allow scientists to monitor the fells for over-grazing.

In Wales, the Brecon Beacons have been hit by F&M, and Richard Davies, the RSPBs land use policy officer there, said a greater emphasis should be given to the Welsh agri-environment scheme Tir Gofal and to producing quality Welsh lamb.

&#42 Not re-open

Before F&M, light lamb from Wales had a big market in southern Europe. "That has now been taken up by other countries. So even if exports return, that market may not re-open," said Mr Davies.

Instead, farmers could increase the weight and quality of lambs by de-stocking slightly, reducing grazing pressure on valuable vegetation and helping bird populations in an area where sheep numbers are known to have an effect.

"Just as there is a short season for strawberries and asparagus, a home market for Welsh lamb as a seasonal, premium product could be developed," said Mr Davies.

Tir Gofal is run by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) on behalf of the National Assembly for Wales. Clunie Keenleyside, senior agriculture policy officer at CCW, points out that studies of hill and upland farms in Tir Cymen (Tir Gofals predecessor) show better-than-average lambing percentages. This was thought to be a result of less intensive stocking and, hence, more efficient stock management.

Andrew Clark, rural development and countryside adviser at the National Farmers Union (NFU), agrees that F&M could result in sustainable re-stocking. "If we end up with a stocking density which may be ecologically sustainable but doesnt allow farmers any income, it wont work."

At English Nature, Richard Wright, the head of agriculture, agrees that the CSS and Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) could help farmers introduce sustainable flock management after F&M.

&#42 Farm business advice

"They will be offered those schemes as part of the farm business advice service which looks at the whole farm – including the buildings, the other infrastructure and environmental assets – to help the farmer think about the future."

English Nature recently released its Upland Challenge report which found that about 70% of upland calcareous grassland and heathland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) were in an unfavourable condition. "Over-grazing – caused by too many sheep and poor management practices – is the principal cause," says Mr Wright.

But Andrew Clark from the NFU said English Nature should also set practical targets to return these SSSIs to a favourable condition, adding that current targets are sometimes highly theoretical.

"In our view, you have to ask whether simply losing stock from the hills is good for over-grazing. If you follow the arguments of English Nature and the other agencies through to their conclusion, they are saying that you have to have the right number of sheep in the right place to achieve the right result for biodiversity. That wont necessarily happen just by losing large numbers of sheep."

Richard Wright agrees. "Reducing numbers of sheep is only part of the answer. Better sheep management is also required. However, English Nature also believes that a far wider package of measures is necessary to ensure that hill farming is both economically and environmentally sustainable. We support many of the recommendations of the governments Hill Task Force."

In addition to ESAs and CSS, English Nature can offer farmers with SSSIs on their land the Wildlife Enhancement Scheme so they can adjust stocking densities. "We are interested in working with farmers to make sure sheep are re-stocked at the right levels to return the vegetation to a favourable condition," said Mr Wright.

&#42 1400 SSSIs

F&M has given English Nature an opportunity to do this because about 1400 SSSIs are within two miles of an infected farm and almost half have been within infected areas. The difficulty for English Nature is finding out exactly what has happened on each SSSI: some will have lost all their stock because they were next to an infected farm; some will have lost stock which were culled while they were over-wintered away from the relevant SSSI.

"We are making phone calls and meeting owners and occupiers to find out how they have been affected," says Mr Wright. "We will then draw up recovery plans for those who have lost stock and integrate this with the farm business advisory service where farmers have taken it up."

F&M may have removed some stock from the hills, but it hasnt changed the opinion of the RSPB, English Nature and others that over-grazing will continue without further reforms to the European Unions sheepmeat regime. Nor will it change the opinion of the NFU that over-grazing is much more about management than over-stocking.

Before F&M, English Nature and the other UK countryside agencies sent a note to the European Commission whose officials were about to announce proposed changes to the regime. In the event, these were minor and did not go as far as the agencies wanted. But the note estimated that about 240,000ha ((600,000 acres) of land in the English upland SSSIs was threatened by grazing or stock feeding practices. Sheep grazing threatened 160,000ha (400,000 acres) of this total.

In Wales, the large areas of common land and improved grassland make it much more difficult to extrapolate figures from SSSI grazing damage. Instead, the agencies used examples from the Tir Gofal and Tir Cymen whole farm schemes where farmers de-stocked for sustainable management. For semi-natural rough grazing in Wales, the number of ewes would need to be reduced by about 225,000 to achieve Tir Cymen stocking levels.

&#42 Numbers increased

Clunie Keenleyside from CCW says statistics supplied by the Welsh Assembly showed total sheep numbers increased from about eight million in 1980 to 11 million last year. The recent proposals to reform the sheepmeat regime would do little or nothing to reduce this figure.

"Basically, instead of having a variable premium, the European Commission has fixed the premium so farmers will receive the same rate from year to year whatever the market price for sheep."

CCW had calculated that this would increase premium payments by about 20% in Wales and, in a comment on the proposals, the council added: "It still forces producers inexorably in the direction of increasing stocking rates to maintain or increase income."

In 1998, Scottish Natural Heritage published a review of the impact of sheep and other herbivores on the Scottish uplands. Under SNHs National Country-side Monitoring Scheme, four vegetation changes were measured that were linked to grazing.

"Of these four categories, heather moorland showed the greatest overall total loss, with all regions – except the Western Isles – experiencing net losses of heather moorland to grassland," the review said.

Some scientists at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute (MLURI) in Aberdeen think there is probably less over-grazing pressure in Scotland because stocking densities are lower and the climate means that heather – one of the most important upland vegetation species – has a better grip on the landscape than it does further south.

Data from the SNH review and others paints a general picture of what is happening to the landscape, but not much more. Grazing patterns can differ from farm to farm, so that what upland ecologists call the mosaic of habitats changes from one area of the hill to another.

To be able to advise a farmer about changing his grazing to help upland ecology, scientists need to match the data on vegetation change with data on stocking densities for each farm. For any scientist working outside government departments and official agencies such as CCW, this is very difficult because stocking data is only available at the parish level and gives no idea about how sheep are distributed on farms.

On top of this, the best data is available on heather. Data on declining upland bird populations which may be associated with over-grazing is much more sketchy. The RSPB has done one year of a three-year programme re-surveying upland areas which were looked at ten years ago.

The initial results show that bird numbers are fairly steady in Scotland, but in England – particularly the north – numbers of waders such as the curlew, golden plover, lapwing and snipe are declining.

&#42 Difficult to collect

Why is bird data so difficult to collect for the uplands when the fall in farmland bird populations in the lowlands has made newspaper headlines for some years now? Dr Robert Fuller, director of habitats research at the British Trust for Ornithology, says much more is known about the population trends of lowland birds because there is a history of intensive research.

"Since the mid-1990s we have been able to assess upland populations much better. But it will be a while before we have a significantly long run of data."

Before that or anything else happens, it may be that the agri-environment schemes – a combination of the lessons learned from F&M for the England and Wales schemes plus the new rural stewardship scheme (RSS) in Scotland – offer the best way of conserving the mosaic of upland farm habitats.