19 July 2002

Lower stocking rates fail to achieve aims

REDUCTIONS in stocking on upland farms may not produce the type of landscape environmental campaigners are hoping for.

Work at ADAS Pwllpeiran, the 1118ha (2761 acres) hill farming research facility at Cwmystwyth in Cardiganshire, has shown that lighter stocking can lead to heather regeneration, but may also gradually erode the overall nutritive value of mountain grazings.

The results also indicate that financial rewards for following tight agri-environment stocking prescriptions are not good enough to maintain viable rural communities in the hills.

Between 1998 and 2001 two identical flocks stocked at different rates grazed two 150ha (375 acres) blocks of semi-natural rough grazings, each with a small area of improved land with no stocking limit.

The two farmlets created were typical of many Welsh units. On one, the Cambrian Mountain Environmentally Sensitive Area Tier 1A stocking limit of 1.5 sheep/ha (0.6 sheep/acre) was used. The ESA Tier 2A rate of 1 sheep/ha (0.4sheep/acre) was applied on the other.

In many respects ewe and lamb performances varied little between the two stocking rates, but incomes fell substantially. The proportion of gross income coming from subsidies increased and averaged 69% for Tier 1A and 77% for Tier 2A land.

Previous studies suggested that the extra £20/ha (£8/acre) paid on Tier 2A land was adequate to cover reduced returns, but the new work showed that gross margin/ha ended up lower than from the more heavily stocked flock.

Barbara McLean, who co-ordinated the study, concluded that the financial implications of removing sheep from the hills had to be considered in conjunction with changes in vegetation. Lighter grazing increased the vigour of heather, but fewer sheep allowed grass species like Nardus to mature and form an unpalatable biomass.

Dr McLean recorded increased grazing pressure on more palatable grass species, and dilution of the nutritive value of the semi-natural rough grazing.

Owen Davies, who leads Pwllpeirans team of researchers, says agri-environment schemes that simply cut sheep numbers will not achieve conservationists aims. Proactive management is also required to prevent the creation of unfarmable hills. &#42

The financial implications of removing sheep from hills had to be considered in conjunction with changes in vegetation, according to study co-ordinator Barbara McLean.