ANYBODY seen a 'flying flock' of Hebridean sheep on their travels around Yorkshire? If so, these may form part of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Grazing Project which uses 600 Hebridean sheep and native cattle to help manage the habitats on their reserves. The flocks are known as “flying flocks” because they are moved between reserves during the year.

The Hebrideans are not the only animal conservation assistants in Yorkshire, if you are familiar with the Dales you might have passed Highland cattle near Hellifield, Belted Galloways at Malham or Blue Greys near Ingleborough. All of these add variety and interest to a walk whilst maintaining the landscape for wildlife. Many of these herds were established following foot and mouth and were originally part of the Limestone Country project which ran from 2002 to 2008. One of the key aims of this project was to reverse the damage caused to biodiversity by years of intensive grazing or in some cases a complete lack of grazing. Too much grazing results in a smooth sward devoid of flowers, not enough and the land may revert to scrub. This difference is clearly illustrated by comparing the grazed Limestone pavements at Southerscales (bare rock) and the ungrazed pavement at nearby Scar Close which is covered in flowers, butterflies and trees. Both of these reserves are visible from the footpath to Ingleborough.

The choice of species and breeds used in Conservation grazing projects is wide, ranging from pigs to ponies but most of the breeds selected are native and hardy. This is because native species are able to survive on unimproved poorer quality grassland and many can be left out in all but the most extreme weather. In fact some cows such as the Belted Galloway are so well insulated that they can be seen in winter with a layer of snow on their backs! The final choice of animal can be down to personal preference but also depends upon the habitat. Sheep are selective feeders and tend to crop close to the ground, cattle wrap their tongues around large tufts of plants and pull them up and ponies will browse on tougher material such as scrub. This means that a mosaic of habitats can be developed with different grass lengths and barer patches broken up by hooves all of which encourage insects and birds as well a wild flowers.

The way animals utilise the landscape is also important. Sheep will graze rocky slopes and limestone pavement and cattle are happy to wade into water and are often used to control scrub development on the edges of lakes. The use of native breeds is an increasing trend nationally and at Craven college we are thinking of purchasing some Bagot goats (an ancient breed) to compliment the Jacob sheep that we already own. These will be used to teach students about the importance of conservation and animal husbandry - we even plan to run some grazing experiments in the future.

The use of native livestock is not without problems; many nature reserves are remote and no longer have a resident farmer or member of staff. In the interests of welfare the livestock need to be checked regularly and this role is now given to travelling staff or in many cases volunteers, providing an ideal opportunity for those that are interested in farming but do not have a family farm.

Another issue is profitability; can low intensity conservation grazing make a profit? This is an important question and the answer is yes. Native breeds are smaller and grow more slowly but they do require far fewer inputs and can be marketed directly to the public who are often willing to pay a premium for quality meat that has been raised on herb rich grasslands. In fact, research carried out into the meat produced by conservation cattle has shown that it is richer in essential fats and healthier for the consumer than the meat from more intensively reared animal and on the evidence of the Wildlife Trust Hebridean lamb I ate last Sunday I think it is tastier to!

Certainly with an ever increasing population low intensity agriculture is not an option everywhere but in our region which has a wealth of wildlife rich habitats it may be the way forward.