Shepherding must be part of ecological restoration in the uplands

Controversy over the future of farming in sensitive upland areas has put sheep back into the spotlight.

Last week the Brecon Beacons announced a plan to restore tree cover, wetlands, hedgerows and wildflowers, while introducing localised renewable energy sources such as small wind turbines. This led to concern that grazing restrictions may be imposed, although the Brecon Beacons National Park (Bannau Brycheiniog) has said that it has no such plans.

But this raises the question of how to manage upland areas sensitively, to allow food production and ecological regeneration together.

Caroline Grindrod is from Roots of Nature. She told 8.9ha TV News that “sheep have been around for a very long time and are a really important part of our cultural heritage.” However, Ms Grindrod recognised that sheep are very selective grazers. “They have small mouthparts and are known to seek out particularly nutritious plants. If they are left unregulated and are not part of an actively shepherded system, then they do have a habit of overgrazing.”

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. “In times of old shepherds would have been actively managing an area to make sure that the sheep weren’t overgrazing. They would be allowing rest and recovery, and there would be fewer sheep and more cattle and ponies that would have helped to take the pressure of any particular [plant] species. This was also an organic system, so there were no chemicals and no interventions.”

Despite their reputation for overgrazing, Ms Grindrod said that there’s no doubt that sheep can play an important role in regenerating ecology. “Sheep can absolutely be part of a regenerative system – they can be a very effective regenerative tool if you can manage the timing and application of their grazing and allow the pasture to recover between grazings.

“The challenge is that on the hills this is very difficult to do because there isn’t a fencing infrastructure and often the hills are part of the commons were there are lots of shared grazings.

“We’ve been trying to tackle this challenge through our Wilderculture project. We have a couple of examples where we’ve taken the sheep off the hill ground (where there’s less fencing and we’re not able to control the timings) and we’ve moved cows and ponies up onto those areas because they are less selective. The sheep are being used in a rotation in the lower areas.”

While Britain’s upland ecology has been degraded by set-stock sheep grazing, Ms Grindrod says that our shepherding heritage and culture can be maintained through a transition to regenerative farming. “These are people who are incredibly skilled, knowledgeable and committed.”

She said, “I would love to see some way of re-establishing shepherding or fencing areas and rotating and resting, with groups of commoners coming together to work out ingenious ways of applying the tools of regeneration and bringing some of these old skills come back to life.

“It’s going to take everyone sitting down together working on potential solutions, but let’s give these shepherds and farmers a chance to evolve and become part of the solution.”

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