Cattle offer far more than beef and dairy, explains farmer and Countryfile presenter Adam Henson; they also contribute to the conservation of some of Britain’s most cherished landscapes
In the fight to restore some of Britain’s ancient landscapes and special wildlife habitats, a black and white army is on the munch. Herds of hungry cattle have been released in some of our most picturesque and environmentally important locations to simply do what comes naturally: eat the grass. The black-andwhite bovines are Belted Galloway cattle and they are brilliant natural lawnmowers. These amazing grazers have been successful all over the country, from Tarn Hows in the Lakes to Hastings Country Park in Sussex.
When most of us think of cattle, we picture two types of animal: specialist dairy cows for milk and pure beef breeds for meat. But that’s a relatively recent view, with the development of high-yielding dairy breeds and prime meat markets only becoming a commercial necessity immediately after the Second World War. In fact, if we go back 100 years or more, the role of farmed cattle was very different. Many traditional breeds were dualpurpose; in other words, the females were milked for the dairy and the males matured and sent to the butcher for beef. But they excelled in neither. It was also normal for some bulls to be used as working animals; robust oxen were perfect for carrying supplies or pulling ploughs and heavy waggons, earning their ‘living tractor’ epithet.
Now in the 21st century, a completely new role has been created for many old British breeds: conservation grazing. By eating the grass and keeping the sward down, the cattle allow wildflowers to thrive. The blooms then attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators, which in turn improve the diversity of wildlife in the area, give new plant species a chance to germinate and improve the all-round quality of the soil. Another benefit is the growing market for pasture-fed meat, which can provide a useful income for farmers who conservation-graze their herds and don’t supplement their diet with grain or concentrate pellets. This beef sells at a tidy premium.
The heritage of the modern Belted Galloway is a bit of a mystery. There are no accurate records of the breed’s origins but the best guess is that shaggy-coated black Galloway cattle from south-west Scotland were crossbred with Dutch Belted Lakenvelders in the 1600s.
A few years ago, I introduced a new Belted Galloway bull to my herd of native breeds at my home in the Cotswolds, which included three Beltie cows and their calves. Just like some of my other livestock who have become animal-celebrities after appearing on Countryfile, Cracker the bull enjoyed his fame and notoriety. I think viewers relished seeing him misbehave and the problems he caused me by ruining fences.
I’d bought him from my old friend Neil Heseltine. His herd of Belted Galloways conservation graze in the Yorkshire Dales. I remember once helping him move them to new pasture when we were caught in a sudden blizzard. While Neil and I were battered by the howling wind and swirling snow, the cattle stood upright, facing into the storm as if nothing was happening; the perfect example of what a solid, hardy and reliable breed they are.
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Belties are a good-natured, sturdy breed