Farmers are accused of it, the biodiversity of the British uplands have been damaged by it for sure, but it’s also happening on conservation land grazed by only a tiny number of wild deer so what’s the deal here?
The first misconception I would like to address is: that land is not overgrazed; plants are. If a field grows ten species of grass plant and a herbivore grazer takes a liking to that plant, that plant will become overgrazed regardless of the towering leaf litter surrounding it. The plant will weaken and gradually disappear from the sward.
As Seth Itzcan says in his great TED X talk below, ‘overgrazing is a human invention’.
When grazing animals – which have always been a key player in a fully functioning ecosystem – are in an entirely natural system, they act as a herd and are always bunched and moving. They behave in this way because of one important factor which is missing from our cosy modern farming system; predators.
When predators are present even the threat of an imminent attack keeps the grazers alert and on guard. The main defence of a grazing animal is the strength of the herd and the perimeter edge is the barrier so the larger the herd the fewer animals – as a ratio to overall herd size – will be attacked.
Imagine life in a herd who are bunched together, you’ll soon realise that standing around in a leisurely fashion is not an option, the grass in your allocated spot soon gets trampled, eaten, and covered in dung; not so yummy! However, this chewed up fertilised grass mulch turns out to be perfect for feeding the soil and provides everything it needs to quickly recover. Plants regrow faster and stronger. Meanwhile, the herd must keep moving to find a new clean patch on which to feed.
Traditional pastoralist systems – such as the Maasai herders – were, to some degree, able to mimic the action of these large herds with their domestic livestock. Herders covered huge areas often not returning to the same patch more than once or twice a year which allowed the plants plenty of time to recover their root system.
Then came land boundaries.
Once land parcels were demarcated and land allocated to private owners, walls and fences were used to maintain these boundaries. Animals could then be reared without the need for a herder to supervise them, instead, small divisions within the boundary allowed a farmer to move the group when the grass was eaten.
Even these ‘unnatural’ grazing regimes worked ok if the animals were held in small paddocks and moved quickly from field to field allowing long recovery periods. Gradually, however, this system slipped into a more ‘ranching’ style of farming where hedges, walls and fences of the internal paddocks were deemed an unnecessary expense and a continuous grazing arrangement is now more common in UK pastures these days.
Ever heard of ‘shifting baseline syndrome?’ In the case of the above scenario, it’s when each generation sees a slight change and assumes the one before was ‘the way it has always been.’ Over decades and centuries, this causes the assumption that it’s normal to allow animals to graze land under a set stocking regime.
This syndrome has led to the newer generation of livestock farmers assuming it’s normal to have to fertilise land to get good grass growth, and that livestock can’t thrive without expensive supplements, concentrates and routine medication – a mindset thoroughly advocated by the agricultural merchants selling these ‘essentials’ of course!
The advent of the use of these ‘inputs’ allowed this shift to occur unnoticed, and on the face of it, it seems a fairly harmless move. In the UK and other ‘non-brittle’ areas of the world we don’t notice the change because the fields are still green and livestock are still grazing, it doesn’t seem too different from the way things have always been done. But we’re trying to farm green deserts.
A plant that is grazed repeatedly will shed root to balance out its energy needs. It takes a lot of energy to regrow roots and leaves; if you’ve no solar panels left the job becomes even harder!
Overgrazing occurs when a plant is grazed repeatedly when it’s trying to regrow its crown and roots from stored energy – over time the plant is weakened and eventually dies.
The most sensitive species will disappear first leaving fewer species and eventually leading to a sward predominantly rich in the only plant species resistant to overgrazing – the unpalatable species. This results in our uplands and pastures inadvertently becoming reduced to fewer species and a dominance of the plants that I think of as ‘symptoms of a lack of complexity’ such as rush, moss and bracken.
In parts of the world where the rainfall patterns are less consistent this form of grazing is devastating and in a matter of decades will turn once diverse deep-soiled grasslands into desert.
You can read about why complexity is critical to true profits HERE but in the meantime, know that the fewer the species the more vulnerable you are to diseases, more reliant you’re are on fertilisers and the less healthy your livestock will be without medical intervention and significant supplementation of concentrates and minerals. Higher costs mean lower profits; overgrazing is costing you money.
In the UK sheep are often blamed for the demise of the Uplands, I can see why. In a continuous grazing scenario sheep and horses are particularly destructive because they are very selective grazers so tend to overgraze the few grasses they like. Cattle and native ponies are less selective so do a little less damage if allowed to wander and graze at will.
But when sheep are grazed in a holistic planned grazing they can be a regenerative tool, not a destructive pest. It’s the management that matters; that’s where it has been going badly wrong.
Across the world holistically managed farms are recreating the principles of the wild herds of grazers and regenerating soils, increasing biodiversity, reducing flood and drought risk and making a LOT more money than those farming in a more conventional system. They’re doing this successfully with sheep, cattle, bison, goats and sometimes following on with ducks, hens and rabbits. They are continuing to increase the carrying capacity of their land year on year whilst continually increasing their ecological bank balance. We’re talking herds of thousands of sheep and cattle in some cases; even small farms can turn impressive profits and make an important contribution to our food security.
At least 40 million acres of land is managed under the principles of holistic management but it’s been slow to catch on in the UK because we’re fooled by our UK deserts staying green and have a subsidy system that supports farmers to not make a profit from production.
Our government is happy to keep the wheels turning with increased sales in medicines, fertilisers, machinery, feed etc – after all, it all increases the Gross Domestic Profit.
If you want to learn how to apply the principles of holistic planned grazing to your holding then please get in touch and I would love you to share this article on social media or with anyone struggling to make a livestock operation work.
We’re on the verge of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; livestock can be a destructive enemy of nature, but they can equally be one of the best opportunities to rebuild soil health, increase wildlife and produce nutritious food.
Overgrazing. It’s not the numbers, it’s the management.
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