Farming for Nature - Bill and Cath Grayson, Morecambe Bay Conservation Grazing Company
An interview with Cath and Bill Grayson who run Morecambe Bay Conservation Grazing Company in North West England about how they came to do conservation grazing, what makes it different from how beef and lamb are normally produced and its benefits for wildlife.
Bill and Cath met while studying ecology at university. Bill then trained as a teacher before doing a PhD in grazing ecology while Cath completed training as a nurse. Bill then went on to teach ecology at a field study centre in North Yorkshire where they started keeping livestock on land attached to the centre. During the following years, during which they moved several times, working for county Wildlife Trusts and on farms, Bill's conviction that farming should work in conjunction with the natural world grew. In 1992, now with 3 young children, they moved, with their itinerant cattle, to Bank House Farm in Silverdale, a village on Morecambe Bay in North West England. Bill took up the role of National Trust warden, alongside the tenancy of the organic farm. They started with fifteen cows and 120 sheep, grazing local nature reserves as well as the farm and adjacent salt marsh. In addition to the farm and wardening work, Bill was also the North West Officer for The Grazing Animals Project and worked as an organic advisor for the government's information and advisory scheme. Cath continued working as a nurse, assisting with farm chores, and running the sale of beef, lamb, pork and poultry.
Silverdale is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty characterised by limestone grassland and woodland. Over the past few decades commercial farming has undergone significant changes, intensifying production on the better quality land and specializing in the most profitable enterprises. This resulted in farming on land of poorer quality being abandoned. Where grazing on this abandoned land had ceased the grassland that had been species rich was giving way to scrub and bracken. The conservation organisations who by now owned much of this more marginal land had come to realise that restoring the right sort of grazing was going to be essential if the species diversity of the grassland and other habitats was going to be maintained.
After ten years at Bank House farm, Bill and Cath moved to their own house nearby from where they have set up the Morecambe Bay Conservation Grazing Company. This now has around 135 cattle plus a small number of sheep. These graze land owned by fifteen or so different conservation organisations and some sites owned by private individuals. The grazing agreements with these land owners vary widely from formal farm business tenancies to informal verbal agreements. In most cases the grazing must comply with the requirements of agri-environment schemes, for which the landowner receives the agri-environment payments while the Graysons receive the farm-support payments known as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) that are available to all farmers. The BPS requires the land to be in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ which means that areas of dense woodland or of scrub or bracken are ineligible. So they can only claim the payments for about two thirds of the area they actually use.
Though they do produce meat from their livestock the main focus of the Grayson’s business is delivering the conservation benefits from the grazing. Cattle manage grassland by eating the more vigorous grasses so other less productive species can compete. They also trample bracken and keep woody species in check, helping to slow or stop the succession of species rich grassland to scrub and woodland. They also graze some woodland areas at certain times of year which increases the biodiversity of the woodland and enhances its structure. Browsing the trees is good for the health of the cattle because their leaves contain additional nutrients. The sheep are useful for grazing some of the smaller sites and are especially appropriate for putting on hay meadows in the winter to keep the grass short so, come spring, it does not outcompete the flowers. They use a breed of sheep called Easy Care which was bred in the 1960s from Welsh Mountain sheep, a very hardy hill breed, and Wiltshire Horn sheep which do not need to be shorn as they shed their fleece naturally in spring. The lack of the normal mass of wool around the tail and back of the hind legs means the blowfly has nowhere to lay its eggs as this area does not get soiled with faeces as it tends to in more heavily wooled breeds. This greatly reduces problems with fly strike and enables the Easy-Cares to keep their tails, which in most other sheep have to be docked to help keep them clean.
Most of the cattle are Red Polls with a few Shorthorns and Blue Greys. These are hardy British breeds that can cope with living out all year round in the tough conditions found on many of the sites they graze. As they mature they get better at utilizing the coarser unimproved vegetation and finding the nutrients they need to maintain themselves, although their growth rates are considerably lower than those of cattle on better ground. So while most farmers slaughter animals for beef before they get to three years old Bill and Cath’s cattle live a lot longer, continuing to grow at this slower rate over a much longer period of up to eight or nine years. Until the last few years the calves were weaned at around 8 months, and given hay during their first winter; now however, weaning is postponed and the cows and calves are allowed to stay together, grazing winter pastures without requiring any supplemental feeding. This results in much bigger and fitter calves when they are eventually weaned the following year, although it lengthens the time before the mother can be in calf again.
They use some of the more fertile fields for making hay for feeding to older or weaker animals that need help to get through the lean months of winter. The process of hay making is crucial for conserving the species richness of the meadows that they manage, most of which have had their diversity restored after many years of more intensive previous management. The hay is stored in a barn located on a small area of wood pasture that they own in Silverdale. This is conveniently close to home for keeping a close eye on animals that need more care when sick or near to giving birth. As well as traditional hay-making, they cut and dry branches of tree leaves for use in the winter as ‘tree hay’, an addition to their diet that the cattle always like.
Because they are certified organic, Bill and Cath cannot treat animals with wormers or other medication unless they are actually sick. Fortunately however, the use of native breeds and the lower stocking densities mean they get very few problems with parasites. Cath thinks this is also due in part to having a closed herd, with each successive generation being bred from their own animals that have built up resistance to the specific parasites and diseases that they encounter on these particular sites. Ticks, for example, are plentiful at some of the sites and the cattle will inevitably get covered in them, although they rarely get the tick-borne infections. When one of the cows did get sick with a tick-borne disease a few years ago, it was one of the few that had been bought in. Since then the only livestock they have been purchased is their Red Poll bull.
The ability of animals to access a wide range of different foods to eat is another factor that both Bill and Cath feel plays an important role in maintaining the health and vigour of their livestock. Apart from the wide range of herbs and grasses on the many different sites they can usually browse a great variety of trees and shrubs, many of which are known to be rich in certain minerals and trace elements. Some, like Yew, are known to be poisonous when eaten by animals encountering them for the first time but Bill and Cath’s cattle routinely browse yew wherever it grows without suffering any harm. Plants like this may also be important for enabling them to ‘self-medicate’ when they need to fight off certain parasites or infections or when they are short of certain minerals or other key nutrients.
When they were at Bank House they sold all of their meat directly to customers from the farm. This scale of marketing has not proved possible from their current home because of lack of space and time, so direct sales are restricted to just two to three cattle a year and about 20 sheep which are sold in small quantities to customers from the immediate locality. The majority of the produce, however, is sold into the commercial wholesale sector where because the animals are older their meat will go into processed foods such as sausages, pies and baby feed rather than being sold as prime beef cuts. This is a slightly disappointing end result for what should really be a premium product, because of its environmental credentials and high-welfare status. Unfortunately today’s meat quality is determined mostly by supermarkets which value tenderness and succulence more than the richer taste and texture that typifies meat from animals reared entirely from pasture. Getting the best out of meat from animals reared this way takes more skill to cook well.
Over the years Bill and Cath have had a number of trainees who have worked with them through different apprenticeship schemes, benefiting from a combination of work experience and specialist college-based training. Some of the ex-apprentices went on to work for conservation organisations, whilst others are now running their own grazing businesses. Bill and Cath are currently working co-operatively with three other conservation graziers in the local area, each having their own animals for grazing their respective sites but sharing some equipment and providing each other with practical help and support. The Graysons are also active members of local farmers’ groups such as the Cumbria Farmer Network and The Morecambe Bay Facilitation Fund and Bill contributes to research linked to sustainable farming.