ECOLOGIST www.fenton.scot James H C Fenton
* NEW * Note: My website address has changed to www.fenton.scot This is because after Brexit the .eu domain name will no longer be valid. The old address was www.james-hc-fenton.eu
UPLAND GRAZING: Are we too hung up on outcomes? When working as the National Trust for Scotland’s Ecologist in the 1990s, the question often arose as to what was the optimum grazing level on the Trust’s upland properties (Glencoe, Ben Lawers, Torridon, Goatfell, Kintail, etc.). To  this end I coordinated a 2-yr EU LIFE project on upland grazing which resulted in the publication Grazing Management Planning for Upland Natura Sites: a Practical Manual (1998). However, deep down, I was never really happy with the conclusions of this project, viz. that it had to be based on the optimum grazing level to maintain the condition of those habitats deemed to be ‘priority’. The weakness of the ‘favourable condition’ approach has in fact been realised by SNH in their Commissioned Report No. 402 Developing guidance for managing extensive upland grazing where habitats have differing requirements (Holland et al 2010): A single upland management unit will often contain habitat types that require very different grazing levels. If there are habitats in the same land management unit that require very different grazing pressures and are accessible to grazing animals then a conflict might arise (p.69). “Some habitat types require very low levels of grazing (e.g. montane willow scrub), or little or no grazing at all (e.g. tall herbs), to be in favourable condition whereas others require moderate to high levels of grazing (e.g. calcareous grassland). The requirements of the other feature types lie somewhere between these extremes (p.68). “When developing management plans the most important thing is the setting of clear objectives for the site. It may be hard to devise a management regime that will maintain all the habitats in favourable condition. In these situations some compromise may be required with priority given to one or more features. This will have to be done on a site by site basis (p.78).” But nature does not have any particular priorities! Instead the plant communities arrange themselves in accordance with the parameters affecting them, such as climate, soil type and grazing animals. It is us humans who have our own likes and dislikes and hence have a tendency to prioritise the habitats we like (and/or which are currently fashionable). Hence I have had to come to the conclusion over the years that selecting any particular grazing level is arbitrary: there is no answer to the question “What is the correct grazing level”? I have also concluded that, in the extensive, unenclosed Highlands which have been largely unmanaged over the millennia and which have always had their own indigenous herbivores (red deer), we are too hung up by outcomes: we want the hills to look a particular way and manage accordingly. However over the millennia they are likely to be periods when grazing was high, medium or low? Does it really matter which it is today? Does it really matter what plant communities we end up with? Why not let nature decide, let it be natural, let it be wild… It was instilled in me at an early stage of my career by the respected Bill Heal that the word ‘overgrazing’ is meaningless in the absence of desired outcomes (e.g. woodland, scrub, heathland, species-rich grassland). So if we drop outcomes, we have also to drop concerns about grazing levels. Why not just leave it for the carrying capacity of the vegetation (food availability) and any other natural parameters to determine how much grazing there is?
A View from Argyll James Fenton’s perspective on current conservation issues Click here for previous blogs
* NEW * LOSS OF WILDNESS 250 years of encroachment into the Scottish hills I have an article in the current issue of Wild Land News (issue 94) analysing the long term attrition of the wildness of the hills. You can access the article here.  Wild Land News is the newsletter of the Scottish Wild Land Group.