In 2019, we told you about some of the amazing grazing animals that are working on conservation grazing projects across Wales. Now for 2020, we’d love to highlight some of the wonderful graziers who look after these animals. We are really proud to work with these enthusiastic and determined people who are helping to put conservation grazing on the map.
Our first Grazier of the Month is Gemma Haines, otherwise known as Woolies, Wellies and Wine! Gemma’s herd of highlands recently featured as Grazer of the Week and now it is Gemma’s turn! We asked Gemma some questions and this is what she had to say:
Where in Wales are you?
I graze the area of Cefn Hirgoed, which forms part of Coity Wallia Common, near Bridgend, South Wales. The common is roughly 800 acres, made up of lowland acidic grassland and heath.
Who do you work with?
At the moment I work alongside Coity Wallia Commoners Association who are keen to see grazing of the common increased as the number of graziers has dwindled in recent years, resulting in the common grassland and heath falling into unfavourable conditions. I am not affiliated with any conservation organisation currently, however would like to collaborate on projects with such organisations in the future.
What animals do you own?
I currently own a small herd of Highland cattle and keep a small flock of Welsh native sheep.
Why did you become involved in conservation grazing?
Whilst at university studying Environmental Conservation Management I became very interested in sustainable agricultural practises. I have always had a keen interest in farming and realised early on that livestock grazing, when done sympathetically, played a huge part in not only protecting, but allowing biodiversity to thrive in lowland and upland grassland environments.
Whilst on a study trip I had the pleasure of observing some Highland cattle being used for conservation grazing and felt they would be ideal for assisting in managing the common on which I grew up and was passionate about protecting. In recent years many graziers of the common have moved to conventional fenced-in grazing systems and the common had become under grazed and overgrown in many places- losing species such as the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and Shrill carder bee as a result. I felt action was necessary and set out in 2017 to personally do something about it.
What challenges have you faced conservation grazing and how have you overcome them?
Resistance from some members of the local farming community was unexpected. As a new entrant farmer, a young woman and not from a farming background I was made to feel by some that I wasn’t welcome to be farming or farming cattle in the locality. Don’t get me wrong, I got a lot of positive support but initially the negativity from a few was off putting. Overcoming this was really a time thing, it got easier the more time passed and I realised I didn’t need to let others opinions taint how I felt about something I felt passionate about.
Secondly the common on which I graze is vast. Finding a small herd of highlands was akin to a needle in a haystack challenge! For the first 2 years I daily spent hours searching with binoculars and on foot locating them to ensure they were all ok. In summer this felt like the good life and was enjoyable, but for example- when the Beast from the East arrived, finding them on foot, in a -9 snow blizzard was testing. Fortunately, this summer PONT lent me a GPS locating device that is attached to a collar on one of my cattle. Using a mobile app, I can login and locate my cattle on a satellite map in a few clicks. This has been a game changer and saved countless hours of searching for them!
The last real challenge has been roads with high volumes of traffic crossing the common. Countless sheep and horses have been killed in recent years and the risk to my cattle is very real. Using data from the GPS location device has allowed me to see how often and where my cattle are crossing these roads and discuss the findings with the commoners association to see if we can collectively better understand how we can improve road safety for grazing livestock and the public using these highways. I’ve also designed high- visibility collars that have been fitted to the cattle to help improve their visibility to motorists- especially at night. We have done this for the past 2 years, each time adjusting the design and materials used to improve visibility and durability (the collars need to be able to breakaway if the cattle become entangled but also need to remain on for a minimum of 6 months without replacement).
What is your favourite wildlife that you have seen whilst out stock checking?
What a question! Observing red kites, hen harriers and listening to Skylarks has to right up there. Watching dragonflies around some of the shallow ponds has also been very rewarding.
Do you have any advice for others wishing to start conservation grazing?
Speak with others who have experience and do your research before jumping in feet first. Conservation grazing can be very different from conventional farming- how you can feed, animal treatments/ medicines permitted on certain sites ( SSSI’s, SAC’s and such). Expect it to be challenging but appreciate it is very rewarding. Often terrain isn’t ideal (lets face it- if it was everyone would be grazing it!). Think carefully about the breeds you intend to use, nutritional requirements and access if you have issues and need to access animals (Tb testing, emergencies, loading ect). Knowledge is power and there are many sources of support available and may people willing to share experiences.
What are you looking forward to for the year ahead?
We are expecting to calve early summer so seeing new highland calves out on the common will be a real highlight for everyone! I would like to see the herd increase in size since current numbers are still not enough to make a big dent in such a vast territory. Fingers crossed we just keep going from strength to strength and in future we see improvements in grassland condition and species variation in terms of lost wildlife returning.
Thank you very much to Gemma for taking the time to answer our questions. You can keep up with her and the highlands activity at her Facebook page.
If you would like to feature as Grazier of the month or know of a worthy conservation grazier who deserves recognition, get in touch with PONT!