The landscape of the UK has been largely determined by past agricultural practices that have given rise to a range of anthropogenic habitats much valued by conservationists. Many of these have been created by, or for, grazing livestock. The suggestion that grazing and browsing animals were instrumental in ‘cyclical succession’ in the preagricultural period is also gaining ground. For these reasons the use of grazing animals in the management of conservation sites has become more common. Since its foundation in 1997 the Grazing Animals Project (GAP) has promoted and facilitated the use of grazing livestock in management of habitats for conservation.
In 2001 GAP produced, in consultation with animal welfare organizations, A Guide to Animal Welfare in Nature Conservation Grazing. The practical advice in, and approach of, this document is potentially invaluable not only to conservation managers and graziers but also to all keepers of livestock. Another GAP publication, the Breeds Profiles Handbook, gives brief descriptions of 55 breeds of livestock known, or anticipated, to be of value in conservation grazing. Many of these are rare or traditional breeds, as these have the characteristics that enable the stock to thrive on the nutritionally relatively poor forage afforded by many conservation sites. These characteristics are often identified as ‘hardiness’ and ‘thriftiness’, but are poorly defined except through the practical experience of conservation managers.
Conservation grazing is a relatively new niche, and one that cannot be filled by modern breeds or strains adapted to high-input, high-output systems. It is, therefore, a great opportunity for rare and traditional breeds, many of which developed in parallel with habitats now appreciated for their conservation value. This applies not only in the UK but also in other European countries. Moreover, recent developments, such as English Nature's Traditional Breeds Incentive for Sites of Special Scientific Interest, several grazing projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Limestone Country Life Project, suggest that this niche is no longer confined to nature reserves.
Conservation grazing can contribute to genetic conservation by:
•Enabling an increase in numbers and wider distribution of rare and traditional breeds.
•Allowing breeders to identify, and select, those individuals that fare best under relatively austere conditions.
•Providing an outlet, or providing additional grazing, for stock that could not otherwise be kept.
•Providing a market for good animals without reference to the showring.
•Providing a refuge for rare breeds from threats such as that posed by the National Scrapie Plan.