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Case Study Five:


Roy A. Harris and R. M. Jones

bulletIntroduction and background
bulletMethods and principles of conservation grazing
bulletFor further information

Introduction and background

Although we have kept the word "project" in our title for some years, it would now be more accurate to describe it as a Grazing Initiative since it has expanded to include a range of different but closely integrated projects.

This initiative grew out of work done with the Nature Conservancy Council starting in the late 1970s developing grazing strategies for managing grasslands on National Nature Reserves. Although the pattern of grazing that was developed was very successful in generating nature conservation benefits, we were dissatisfied because it was almost entirely separate from the agricultural grazing practice that dominated so much of the wider countryside. The idea grew that we could take the principles of conservation grazing management and harness them to low-intensity farming in order to develop a pattern of land use that generated rich wildlife habitats, favoured particularly important species and produced a food crop.

This general aspiration developed into action when we bought a 26 hectare croft holding on South Walls, at the southern tip of Hoy, in Orkney. This was ideal as a proving ground for this approach in that it combined maritime grasslands, maritime heaths and wetlands with a high conservation potential with previously improved agricultural grasslands. A derelict croft house was structurally sound and ‘ripe for improvement’. We moved in, with our sheep flock, in 1987. Adjacent land with similar potential came on the market at that time and was acquired by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) as their Hill of White Hamars Wildlife Reserve. We undertook to manage this area as an integral unit with our own land at the Loft and have worked closely with the SWT ever since. The joint objectives of this project were:

bulletto develop a pattern of grazing to favour the endemic Scottish primrose, Primula scotica
bulletto develop, wherever possible, rich wildlife habitats across the whole range of vegetation communities and
bulletto integrate both of these objectives with low-intensity farming producing a commercial crop of lamb, breeding sheep and wool.

Subsequent purchases of neighbouring land saw the project area grow to a total of 126 hectares, with something over half owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the rest in private ownership but managed with the same objectives.

The Nature Conservancy Council and its successor bodies, the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), were generally supportive and assisted financially with monitoring work. In 1996 an informal partnership arrangement came into being between ourselves, SWT and SNH to develop a demonstration programme to make the work more widely known and in particular to disseminate information about the practical management techniques that had been developed.

Methods and principles of conservation grazing

Good conservation management of vegetation should allow plants to flower and set seed. This is vital not only to maintain genetic diversity but also to increase the relative abundance of flowering plants, to provide rich food resources of pollen and nectar for insects and other invertebrates and to create a diverse three-dimensional vegetation structure. There is also a need for the impact of grazing animals to create short, open areas suitable for seedling establishment within a competitive turf.

Understanding the way in which plants are affected by grazing and planning the way in which domestic grazing animals use vegetation makes it possible to determine what kind of vegetation grows where, even down to the individual species of plants and their relative abundance in a particular area.

Some plants are intolerant of grazing and cannot survive in grazed grasslands or heaths; others have successfully adapted to grazing and survive in a prostrate form in a short grazed turf, perhaps unable to flower but reproducing themselves vegetatively. Between these extremes, other plants are unable to survive being grazed when they are actively growing in spring and summer, but are able to thrive if grazing is delayed until the late summer or autumn.

Some plants are more palatable than others and so are actively sought out while others are ignored. This relative palatability of species can vary through the year. There is no such thing as light grazing for especially palatable species under a continuous stocking regime: they are likely to be sought out and eaten as often as they re-grow and for them even light stocking densities generate high grazing pressures.

Low stocking of extensive areas over long periods generates a pattern of vegetation and species composition dictated by the behaviour and preferences of the grazing animal. In contrast, targeted nature conservation grazing management controls the timing and intensity of grazing pressure, overriding grazers’ preferences, in order to produce the desired vegetation communities and relative abundance of species.

These basic facts about how grazing moulds vegetation communities were the essential tools we had to work with. The other part of the tool-kit was our flock of sheep, giving us control over how the land was to be managed.

Our methodology for converting theory into practice was essentially pragmatic and evolutionary: in essence, we tried what we thought were sound management practices derived from experience managing National Nature Reserves, assessed their effectiveness, learned from experience, made adjustments to timing, duration and impact of grazing and learned how to match conservation management requirements with the husbandry needs of the sheep flock. The vagaries and extremes of Orkney weather, especially the erratic and sometimes brutal dominance of the wind, were other factors that had to be learned and accommodated.

A vital part of the programme was the establishment of a system of monitoring, to enable vegetation responses to be identified and used to test the effectiveness of the management being applied. Resources were too limited to monitor as comprehensively as we would have wished. Accordingly, a three-tiered structure of monitoring was designed that uses different intensities of data gathering for documenting different processes in different areas. Each of the ten monitoring projects can be considered as belonging to one of three categories, which make a progression from the general to the specific: extensive monitoring, vegetation community monitoring and species monitoring. Each of the categories of monitoring activity are evaluated in conjunction with the others to produce an overall picture. The results are used both to develop an effective management strategy and as the foundation of the demonstration programme.


Leaving the richest grasslands and heaths ungrazed in spring and summer has allowed flower-filled, species-rich grasslands, heaths and wetlands to develop. These are also good habitat for ground-nesting birds and many invertebrates. But this period without grazing must be followed by a heavy grazing pressure in autumn and winter to remove the year’s crop of grasses and herbs. This heavy grazing after flowering and seed set is essential to maintain the vegetation structures necessary to ensure species richness and abundance of flowers in subsequent years.

Achieving sufficient autumn and winter grazing impacts, but without too much grazing on dwarf shrubs like heather, while maintaining a healthy sheep flock, are the most difficult factors to reconcile. The key is careful timing: leaving areas ungrazed long enough for seed to set, but grazing them heavily before they are flattened and damaged by salt-laden autumn and winter storms. It is a critical balancing act, made all the more difficult here by the violence and unpredictability of Orkney weather.

This grazing strategy has proved very successful for the Scottish primrose. It has produced grassland and heaths within which the primrose has been able to thrive, even taking into account periodic setbacks due to extreme weather conditions. The known Scottish primrose plants have increased from 659 in 1987 to 4821 in 1999.

In addition, over 40 other species have shown impressive increases in flowering and abundance under the same management regime. The coastal grasslands and heaths produce an abundance of flowers from spring until late summer, from the earliest primroses until the last of the devil’s bit scabious. Abundant marsh-marigold, northern marsh-orchid and meadowsweet occur in wetter ground; carpets of spring squill, bird’s-foot-trefoil and heath spotted-orchid cover cliff tops; the wetter heaths turn golden with bog asphodel; and grazing-sensitive kidney vetch and wild angelica have re-colonised some seasonally grazed pastures.

Although grazed in spring and summer, or cut for hay, the agriculturally improved fields have also become more diverse and each field now supports some 70 species of plants. No fertiliser or pesticide has been used for at least 13 years and this has allowed herbs to compete more effectively with grasses, as well as reducing the aggressive vigour of weed species like docks. Wildflowers have re-colonised from the nearby coastal areas. The hayfield in particular has been transformed into a flowery meadow by colonising northern marsh-orchid, heath spotted-orchid, meadow vetchling, tufted and bush vetches, yellow rattle, cuckoo flower and forget-me-nots.

The abundance of flowers has allowed a dramatic increase in the number of insects: summer grasslands now hum with the sound of bees, many species of fly and hoverflies. Butterflies, too, are more numerous and much more widespread.

This successful conservation management is based on the natural productivity of unfertilised grasslands and heaths. Accordingly, agricultural productivity is not as high as on an equivalent purely commercially managed farm: nevertheless, between 200 and 240 lambs are produced annually from the 80 hectares that we graze directly with approximately 150 ewes, usually achieving over 150% lambing. The reduced livestock production is balanced by Agri-Environment payments made on 58 hectares of land managed under the Habitat Scheme.

A detailed financial analysis is required in order to make definitive statements about how well the economics of this grazing management system compare with those of conventional commercial farming. Comparisons are made difficult by the fluctuations in sheep prices. In the early days of the project the sole farm income was from livestock and the associated support payments - Sheep Annual Premium (SAP) and Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance(HLCA): the low stocking rate was therefore financially disadvantageous. After 1995, agri-environmental payments, under the Habitat Scheme, were approximately 7,250 per annum, which compensated substantially for low stock numbers. However, the current collapse in the hill sheep market has rendered even commercial sheep farming operations largely uneconomic. At present the low capital and running costs, together with the agri-environment payment, make this conservation farming approach more viable financially than commercial production systems.


The principles of grazing and their application to nature conservation management are valid for all areas, not just for Orkney. The grazing practices applied and more fully evolved here were originally developed while managing National Nature Reserves in the East Midlands of England. They were very successful for meeting the needs of rare limestone grassland plants like Pasque flower and man orchid, and generated tenfold population increases over a period of 10 years. A management technique that works equally well in the inland English lowlands and on the maritime cliffs of the far north of Scotland is obviously widely applicable.

Although the particular value of this work has been to combine conservation grazing management with low intensity farming, the conservation results that have been achieved are impressive in their own right.

The low-intensity, environmentally-friendly land use pattern has generated striking conservation benefits within a framework of extensive agriculture. This is directly relevant to the development of ideas about the future of agriculture and wildlife conservation, especially in remote areas, and is particularly timely in view of the continued development and reform of the EU Common Agricultural policy. Recent dramatic declines in livestock prices and farm incomes currently threaten the future viability of conventional agriculture in disadvantaged and remote areas. This trend is likely to get even worse if World Trade Organisation negotiations lead to UK agriculture having to compete with world food prices, without production subsidies. It is not only agriculture that is at risk: remote rural communities are underpinned by farming activities and the related economic activity that they generate. The loss of agriculture in peripheral areas could lead to the terminal decline of whole communities in remote areas.

The land-use patterns developed here demonstrate that wildlife interests and low-intensity livestock production can fruitfully co-exist. It seems likely that future Common Agriculture Policy reforms will see production-linked support payments re-directed towards additional agri-environment schemes, increasing the available resources to support environmental management on farms. It would be possible, and desirable, to use this opportunity to evaluate more fundamentally the future role of farming and wildlife management in the remote, disadvantaged areas of Britain. The type of management pattern developed on a small scale here could be seen as a model for a much wider application of a conservation farming system. Even if the full production potential of British farms is no longer required within a global economic system, this need not be a reason for abandoning agriculture in difficult areas. If agri-environment funding was available at a sufficient scale, it would be possible to support a broadly agricultural rural community structure through regarding conservation benefits as an additional agricultural crop, alongside reduced food production. A land-use system designed to favour wildlife interests needs to be more labour-intensive than most forms of modern, intensive farming, simply because of the need to manage with care, using additional skills based on careful and critical judgement of environmental impacts. Conservation farming could provide more skilled rural employment than conventional agriculture.

Conservation farming systems could see a sensitive blending of low-intensity farming with conservation management techniques. This approach would not be to everybody’s taste but it could maintain land-based rural communities, would preserve the skills of producing food in difficult environments even if at a lower volume, and would also have the additional benefit of maintaining and enhancing a countryside with thriving and diverse wildlife interests.


It is obviously difficult for us to make a completely impartial assessment of how successful this Grazing Initiative has been so far. However, all three of the initial objectives have been achieved: we have developed a conservation grazing strategy which has permitted the Scottish primrose population to thrive; the heaths, grasslands and wetlands have developed into impressively species-rich and flowery vegetation communities; and the conservation management has been successfully integrated with low intensity sheep production. Recognition has been achieved in the form of a Henry Ford European Conservation Award in 1996 and an MBE in 1998. It is as yet unclear how successful we have been in disseminating information and experience about the project to other land managers and land-use planners.

However, a critical evaluation should also consider whether this initiative could have been more successful if it had been established and organised in a different way.

The advantage of working as self-employed individuals, on land without statutory conservation designations, has been the freedom to develop innovative ideas and the opportunity to put them into practice. This had not been fully possible while employed by the Nature Conservancy Council with the specialist role of managing three National Nature Reserves. Although the ideas that underpinned this grazing initiative have now been thoroughly vindicated, it has to be recognised that they must have seemed naively idealistic and unrealistically optimistic, given the state of practical knowledge about conservation grazing management in 1987 and the then position of conventional farming.

Although we set up this grazing initiative accepting that we would have to fund the first few years of work, we did not intend that this position would become permanent. Looking back now, we feel unbelievably naive in expecting that once we had shown that our ideas could work we would be able to develop a fully collaborative approach with our partners that would generate sufficient funding to pay a reasonable salary for our skills and labours and would provide the necessary additional supporting manpower. This never materialised. It is not that we were ever misled, but simply that we believed that the necessary level of funding would automatically follow once impressive results could be demonstrated. We applied the ‘better mousetrap’ strategy: i.e., "make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door". However, it seems that either our door was too well hidden or most of our potential ‘customers’ had not realised that they had a rodent problem and hence were not especially eager to look for a solution. In fact, within the systems as they are, we have been fortunate to receive the amount of supporting funding that we have, even though we have had to find the bulk of the necessary finance through our own personal resources and consultancy work.

We believe the results have been valuable and thoroughly worthwhile, but they are the product of naive enthusiasm and not sound business sense or responsible financial planning. Now in retrospect, we cannot know whether it would ever have been possible to do it the ‘sensible’ way, by presenting costed proposals, securing the necessary supporting funding from the government conservation agency, employing the necessary support staff and then setting out to buy suitable land and set the grazing programme in motion. Our strong suspicions, however, are that it would not have been possible to overcome the ingrained scepticism about new ideas, let alone the reluctance or inability to provide adequate supporting finance.

A major disadvantage of working alone, rather than as part of a large organisation, is that the opportunity is lost to discuss and develop ideas in collaboration with colleagues working on the same problems or in similar fields. This is a fundamental constraint that is exacerbated by inadequate finance and working in a remote location. Lacking support staff and basic administrative back-up are also major weaknesses of working outside the structure of a large organisation. Constantly working excessively long hours, with no assistance to cope with sickness, generates serious practical difficulties and can prejudice the quality of work being achieved, as well as threatening personal well-being. ‘Thinking time’ is a vital component of developing and implementing innovative ideas: we have spent too much time struggling to keep our heads above water and have had too little time to consider, reflect and evaluate; and to generate and develop a flow of new ideas. Having no adequate income to support all the costs of the project has been very limiting.

It is not clear what conclusions can be drawn from our experiences. Without doubt, if we had been able to carry out our work with adequate resources of money and manpower within a large, supportive organisation we could have achieved much more, especially in terms of more comprehensive monitoring and documentation and wider and more effective dissemination of ideas and experience. However, the simple truth is that this ideal working situation was not available to us for this project. The choice has been to pursue our ideas on a financial shoestring or not to do the work. The judgement about whether the practical conservation achievements and the demonstration of innovative concepts are sufficient justification for the efforts and costs has to be a personal one.

Creative and innovative ideas are more often generated by individuals than organisations. A self-motivated individual can make things happen more rapidly and effectively than a reluctant and conservative organisation. But resources are mostly controlled by organisations or by Government. The challenge is to link resources to creative thinking and imaginative and effective action.

For Further Information

A 28 page full-colour A4 booklet, "The Nature of Grazing", has been produced as an introduction to this grazing project, together with a series of ten related management advisory notes. These are available free of charge from the Reserves Manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Cramond House, Kirk Cramond, Cramond Glebe Road, Edinburgh EH4 6NS.


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