There is nothing quite like a good ol’ ramble and meander in the open countryside, is there. As well as the benefit of exercise, it is scientifically proven that walking eases stress. And by re-establishing a connection with nature, we can bring about an inner zen or peace that is often missing from our lives.
Unless of course, your stroll leads you into a field where there is huge rampant bull and some cows on the loose and you’ve forgotten to shut the gate. Suddenly, you’re in a situation where no amount of calm is going to help. Racing through your mind are thoughts that you are going to have to run at them all, screaming. And you are going to have to get that bloody gate shut.
But before you do, just a take moment to reflect upon where you are. If, for instance, you are in the wilds of Essex, in one of its many country parks, the cattle in front of you may well be quite docile and friendly. They may well be a herd of Red Poll, a traditional breed, native to East Anglia. And they are more than likely to have been placed there by Legacy Grazing, a conservation project set out by Essex County Council, as part of a new initiative to manage and maintain the parkland that surrounds you. All is well.
At least that was the imaginary scenario that was running though my head when I visited Thorndon Park, in Brentwood, with Jess a few weeks ago. We had organised a visit to get an understanding of work that Legacy Grazing do and my first impressions were – ‘You can’t have all these animals roaming around public spaces like this! Good grief!’ But after talking to Luke Bristow, ecologist and project manager, and Roger Beecroft, herd manager, wildlife consultant and all-round dude; I have to say, the whole experience was totally enlightening.
By way of background, the aim of Legacy Grazing is to provide the option of heritage grazing to wildlife sites, as an alternative to modern day management. And at present, they offer bespoke conservation grazing to managers of nature reserves and open spaces including Essex County Council, Basildon Borough Council, Chelmsford City Council, Colchester Borough Council and Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust. Public areas such as these countryside parks and woodland areas are treasured assets but they can be expensive to maintain. The man hours needed can barely keep on top of things and plus there is the cost of buying and running equipment, such as strimmers, chainsaws and the like. Couple that with the fact that these simple methods of clearing grassland and scrub are often detrimental to sensitive environments, it is not the best approach.
Enter then, the cows.
Because grazing animals such as cattle eat selectively, they often choose more dominant plant species, which allows less competitive plants and wildflowers to thrive. This encourages insects, which are in turn eaten by birds and mammals. And as they graze across the landscape, the cattle decide for themselves where to concentrate their efforts, thereby creating a mosaic of different sward lengths and micro-habitats.
They also employ a whole host of other ‘techniques’ to help increase structural diversity, such as lying, rolling and trampling. Which encourages nurseries for seedlings that might not survive and hunting opportunities for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.
Even the dung they distribute is important, as this generates an ecosystem in its own right. By minimising the use of chemicals to control internal parasites, a whole host of wildlife will colonise a cowpat - more than 250 species of insect are found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.
This was all information provided by the way, by Roger and Luke, as we made our way up a steep hill, through to an open top field and were suddenly met by a herd of inquisitive Red Poll. I say inquisitive, they seemed to recognise Roger and it was his rattling of some grain in a bucket that gained their attention.
‘This is just a rare treat,’ he said. ‘At this time of year, they do well enough on all the grass and herbs around us. Even in winter, when we bring them in, we will feed them on haylage that comes in from the surrounding fields.’
They were certainly good-looking creatures. With glorious mahogany coats and deep batting eyelashes, they are slightly smaller than commercial continental breeds. But their size is relevant, as this reduces the risk of heavy ground damage. With a calm temperament that suits public sites, they seemed very content and were more than happy to wander about in our presence. It all amounted to an unobtrusive affair really and by all accounts, even their health and behaviour is simply managed by quiet observation.
‘We have a group of over 30 volunteers who cover and monitor our sites now,’ said Luke. ‘Our apprentice, Ysabella Powis, co-ordinates everyone and if there is any sort of issue, we have local vets that we bring on board. But our selection and timing of drugs introduced is kept to a bare minimum and it’s very rare that we have resort to the use antibiotics.’
At this point, I spotted some bracken that showed some tell-tale nibbling, where some bark had been stripped bare.
‘Wow, do the Red Poll have a stab at these bushes too then?’ I asked
‘Ah, no. That would be the goats who did that,’ Roger replied.
‘You have goats too? Show us the goats!’ (This was Jess by the way)
And indeed, just around the corner from where we were standing, skipped about a herd of Old English goats; a rare feral breed brought in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland. According to Roger, their speciality is to control the woodier vegetation that grows in the area, as their diet consists of approximately 50 to 75% of scrub. With some herbs and flowers thrown in for good measure.
‘Do you sell these for meat also?’ we enquired.
To which Luke responded – ‘Not just yet. There is scope in the future to sell them on, as we’re aware that goat meat is becoming more popular. But for the time being, we just want to see how we can implement them into our conservation system. They are doing a great job so far though.’
Which of course does bring us to the business end, in that part of the objective, is to sell the cattle on for beef. It is a key factor in budgeting the whole enterprise. The great thing is that, again, localism is built in. Once they have come through finishing, they are then moved to a small family run abattoir in Burnham-On-Crouch, for slaughter and their meat is prepared to supply local butchers in Essex and London, including Turner & George. All of which minimises the food miles travelled, from field to fork.
Overall, the beef from the Red Poll yields great results, combining an excellent distribution of fat content, with a full depth of flavour. Which can only be attributed to the way the cattle are raised.
It’s a system that would do well to catch on and with time, could become a regular way of rearing animals, on public parks and wildlife reserves up and down the land.
Heck, sooner or later, we may not even have to worry about closing them pesky gates.
Key objectives of Legacy Grazing
To conserve scarce wildlife and landscapes to help local authorities and other organisations demonstrate a positive commitment to England's Biodiversity Strategy
To explain & promote the role played by grazing animals in shaping the natural and historic environment of Essex
To promote animal husbandry skills among younger generations through the apprenticeship programme
To provide volunteering opportunities to local communities
To achieve the highest standards of animal welfare