Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Heather & Grazing

Dealing with questions about the interaction between heather & grazing is an issue that keeps me busy.  So often the balance is all wrong, with the level of grazing not matched to the amount of dry matter available.  

Reliance on grazing in old heather is dangerous - the impact of grazing on an ageing heather resource is often too apparent.   The old heather has few stems / unit area and limited growth, and as a result, an increasing percentage of the annual increment is removed.  This causes the heather to die back and open space appears between the plants.  Young seedlings attempt to grow in the gaps but their high palatability is fatal.  The end result is that the heather becomes completely threadbare, and eventually dies out with or without a sniff of heather beetle, leaving the way open for different vegetation.  

The farmers will argue that the stocking rate is much less than it used to be so it is not their problem.  This is correct to an extent but it misses the point that carrying capacity is linked to food production and sick heather has little production potential.  

Burning properly, following best practice guidance, to introduce vigorous, high density areas of young heather is needed to reverse this trend.  This would produce more grazing dry matter, a greater species diversity to satisfy conservation interests, better sporting potential, and secure heather in the landscape.  It is difficult to see a downside but this approach is being resisted by the conservation agencies in many parts of the UK.

Am I missing something?

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