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Providing evidence to improve practice

Action: Use traditional breeds of livestock Farmland Conservation

Key messages

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Supporting evidence from individual studies


A small, replicated study from 1992 to 1996 of four pasture plots in North Yorkshire, UK (Newborn 2000) found that Hebridean sheep (a minority breed) grazed more purple moor grass Molinia caerulea than Swaledale sheep (traditional upland breed), but the resulting density of purple moor grass and heather Calluna vulgaris did not differ. Hebridean sheep grazed significantly more purple moor grass leaves than Swaledales (61% vs 23%). But the density of purple moor grass leaves did not differ between Hebridean (2389 m²) and Swaledale plots (2798 m²). Overall, cover by heather did not change over time. In the Hebridean plots, heather cover doubled in the first four years (12% to 29%), then declined (22%), the overall increase was 3.7%/year. In Swaledale plots, cover increased over the first two years (3% to 7%), then declined dramatically to 1%, with an overall decline of 1%. Two areas of pasture dominated by purple moor grass, ungrazed for two years and unburnt for ten, were divided into two plots of 2 ha, one grazed by Swaledale sheep, one by Hebridean sheep (99 kg live weight/ha) between May and September. Numbers of grazed and ungrazed purple moor grass leaves were sampled within two quadrats (0.5 x 0.5 m) and lengths of grazed/ungrazed leaves measured at 100 points across plots following sheep removal in September each year. Plant species were sampled using a point sampling technique along a 15 m transect (45 cm intervals).



A 2004 literature review (Rook et al. 2004) found 11 studies that compared the feeding behaviour of different sheep or cattle breeds in fairly controlled conditions. Only one study monitored the effects on vegetation. This UK study (Newborn et al. 1993, later reported as Newborn 2000) found that Hebridean sheep caused more of a decline in purple moor grass Molinia caerula than Swaledale sheep, when this plant was growing with heather Calluna vulgaris. On the basis of findings from all eleven studies, the authors concluded that the different breeds of livestock have only minor differences in their feeding behaviour and these differences are mostly due to body size.

Additional references:

Newborn D., Wakeham A. & Booth F. (1993) Grazing and the control of purple moor grass. Game Conservancy Council Review.


A small-scale study over three years on species-poor lowland grassland in the UK (Tallowin et al. 2005) found that at reduced grazing pressure, two cattle breeds created different sward structures and associated invertebrate assemblages (details not provided). Three grazing treatments were studied: commercial breed Charolais × Holstein-Friesian steers at moderate (maintaining 3,000 kg herbage dry matter mass/ha) or lenient (4,500 kg herbage dry matter mass/ha) grazing pressures and North Devon steers (traditional breed) at lenient grazing pressure. Treatments were applied from May to September and grasslands received no fertilizer during the study.


A randomized, replicated trial from 2002 to 2004 in France, Germany and the UK, (Scimone et al. 2007) (same study as (Scimone et al. 2007)) found that grazing using traditional breeds of livestock made no difference to the number of plant species on agricultural grasslands compared to grazing with commercial breeds. There were on average 25, 17 and 10 plant species in plots grazed with commercial breeds (in France, Germany and the UK respectively) compared to 24, 17 and 11 plant species in plots grazed with traditional breeds. Productive, species-poor grasslands (UK site), species-rich semi-natural grasslands (France) and moderately species-rich ‘mesotrophic’ grasslands (Germany) were used in the experiment. Sites were grazed continously with cows. Treatments were replicated three times at each site. Paddocks 0.4 to 3.6 ha in size were leniently grazed with either a traditional or a commercial breed. Plants were monitored in ten fixed 1 m2 quadrats in each paddock in April-May, June-July and August-September from 2002 to 2004. Other plant species seen within 5 m of the quadrats were also recorded. An additional study site grazed by sheep in Italy was also included in the analysis but is not reported here because it falls outside the geographical range of this synopsis.



A randomized, replicated study from 2002 to 2004 in France, Germany and the UK (Wallis De Vries et al. 2007) (same study as (Scimone et al. 2007)) found using traditional breeds of livestock to graze grasslands had no effect on the numbers of butterflies (Lepidoptera), grasshoppers (Orthoptera), birds, European hares Lepus europaeus, or ground-dwelling arthropods in general, relative to commercial breeds. One insect group (‘other’ beetles (Coleoptera)) were more abundant in pitfall traps under grazing by traditional breeds, at two of the four sites: at the site in Germany this group mainly comprised sap beetles (Nitidulidae). The traditional cattle breeds were Devon, German Angus and Salers, compared with commercial Charolais x Fresian, Simmental and Charolais, in the UK, Germany and France respectively. Each treatment (leniently grazed with traditional or commercial livestock) was replicated three times at each site, in 0.4 to 3.6 ha paddocks. Animals were monitored in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Butterflies were counted once a fortnight from May to September and grasshoppers sampled with a sweep net each month from June to October, on three 50 m-long transects. Birds and hares were counted for seven minutes along a transect, fortnightly from May to October. Ground arthropods were sampled in twelve pitfall traps in each paddock, in spring, summer and early autumn. An additional study site grazed by sheep in Italy was also included in the analysis but is not reported here because it falls outside the geographical range of this synopsis.


Referenced papers

Please cite as:

Dicks, L.V., Ashpole, J.E., Dänhardt, J., James, K., Jönsson, A., Randall, N., Showler, D.A., Smith, R.K., Turpie, S., Williams D.R. & Sutherland, W.J. (2018) Farmland Conservation Pages 245-284 in: W.J. Sutherland, L.V. Dicks, N. Ockendon, S.O. Petrovan & R.K. Smith (eds) What Works in Conservation 2018. Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK.