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The Whitebred Shorthorn Association

Secretary's Office
Bloch Farm
Langholm
Dumfriesshire
DG13 OLS
Tel: +44-(0)1387 380360
secretary@whitebredshorthorn.com

The Limestone Country Project

The Limestone Country Project is a five year project based in the limestone areas of the Yorkshire Dales. The Project has a £1.27 million budget, of which £550K is from the European Union LIFE (Nature) fund; money specifically allocated by the EU to support the management of internationally important wildlife sites. It is a partnership project, jointly project managed by English Nature and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, with a number of other partners including the National Trust, the Grazing Animals Project, National Beef Association and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The Project has now been running for just over two years.

Blue Grey Cattle on Ingleborough National Nature Reserve
Blue Grey Cattle on Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (Yorkshire Dales)

The limestone areas of the Yorkshire Dales are of national and international importance for biodiversity. These areas are associated with the distribution of Carboniferous limestone and the majority of the area is concentrated in the uplands around Ingleborough and Malham. The soils overlying this rock are usually very thin and of low fertility and, in combination with consistent grazing, result in a rich diversity of lime-loving grasses and wildflowers for which the “limestone country” of the Dales is famous. The limestone grasslands are dominated by blue moor grass with colourful species such as bloody crane’s-bill, rockrose, small scabious and wild thyme.

This is also an important area for limestone pavements with 50% of the UK’s pavements within the Yorkshire Dales. Limestone Pavement is a unique and declining resource of international conservation importance.

The Yorkshire Dales landscape and habitats have been influenced to a large degree through a long history of pastoral farming. However agricultural census returns over last 40 years show a general decline in mixed farming – for a variety of reasons, both economic and cultural. Research carried out during the development of the Limestone Country Project showed clearly that much of the higher limestone land was now being grazed exclusively by sheep. Despite having had a long history of summer cattle grazing the land is now seen as not being of good enough forage quality, and cattle grazing viewed as too labour intensive or uneconomic. Where cattle are still present these tend to be the larger commercial continental breeds and these are rarely left on the land for any significant time period.

There is now a wide amount of experience regarding the role that traditional cattle breeds may have in helping maintain important wildlife sites and a large number of wildlife sites are being managed by traditional breeds to enhance their biodiversity. Native upland cattle breeds have been recognised for their ability to graze unimproved upland grasslands and convert low quality forage much more effectively. They are also less selective graziers and thus encourage greater diversity within grassland swards.

Blue Grey Cattle on Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (Yorkshire Dales)
Ingleborough National Nature Reserve

The Limestone Country Project aims to restore habitats within the Ingleborough Complex and Craven Limestone Complex Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) by encouraging a return to mixed farming using hardy upland cattle breed. We are aiming to introduce native upland cattle onto a minimum of 1,500 ha of limestone habitats in the project area, working with 15-20 farming enterprises.

Farmers joining the Project are able to select from a range of native cattle breeds, including Galloway, Shorthorn, Blue Grey, Luing, Highland and Welsh Black. Blue Greys would have been a very common sight amongst suckler herds in the Dales only 40 years ago and we envisage that they will play a very important role in the future of the Project. Several farmers have already chosen Blue Greys with which to stock their land.

Recently in the summer of 2003, as part of the Project, English Nature purchased a herd of Blue Grey cattle. The 19 yearling heifers and 7 two-year old heifers have grazed across 180 hectares of upland rough grazing from June right through to January 2004 when they were removed and outwintered on more lowland pastures in Cumbria.

Blue Grey
Grazing one of the Three Peaks in the Yorkshire Dales National Park

These Blue Grey cattle were brought onto the Ingleborough National Nature Reserve to tackle the blue moorgrass which was the dominant grass on the higher land, in order to increase species diversity amongst the grassland swards. Blue moorgrass is typically avoided by sheep and continental cattle which preferentially graze the fescue swards. Since May 2004 these cattle have been back grazing on the slopes of Ingleborough and although as yet we have no hard scientific evidence for wildlife habitat improvements, the initial visible results are promising. We are, however monitoring both the performance, economic viability and grazing impact of the cattle, including using radio collars which will locate the herd and allow us to gain information on their grazing and behavioural patterns. The results from this research will start to become available from late 2005.

Local farmers seem very enthusiastic about the Project and we currently have 12 agreements with farmers in addition to the English Nature herd. There are a further ten farms on the short list for entry over the next 1 - 2 years.

We have also been working with local marketing consultants to help create a market within which to sell their beef direct to the consumer and are currently looking into viability of any local project branding. We have also been fortunate to grab the attention and support of the celebrity TV cook, writer, and broadcaster Sophie Grigson, who has already attended and cooked for an evening meal attended by all participating farmers and other key individuals.


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