I experienced a ‘moment’ this morning whilst chillin’ amongst the cattle along Hoo Brook, maybe it was a déjà vu moment. Whatever kind of moment it was, the realisation that I’ll not have to fight my way though thick vegetation at the north end of the marsh this year has pleased me greatly. Last year, thanks to the new northern corridor and new stock fencing and gates, we were able to graze Hoo Brook and Riverside Pastures and the swamp.
In earlier years, moving around the north end of the marsh was difficult because of the huge amount of tall balsam and thistles, brambles and large powerful stinging nettles growing there. Even though the cattle ate the balsam last year, it quickly regrew and we weren’t able to get them back to regraze before it shed it’s seeds. I expected the ground to contain many balsam seeds from the secondary growth, and that it would take a few years before all the grounded seeds had germinated and the resultant plants eaten. To survive, Himalayan balsam has to shed its seeds annually. As it turns out, there is very little balsam on the marsh now. So the grazing effort this year will not now be centered on Himalayan balsam, but on other grazing priorities, which I was not expecting.
Last year a different Shetland herd grazed the marsh, and they loved eating balsam. This year’s herd don’t realise what a delicacy they are missing.
I think the number of cattle an acre of good farmland will support is around 1.8. The marsh herd of 9 cattle has 92 acres to graze (one cow per 10 acres), which is fine, because we are conservation grazing. We want the cattle to eat the thistles, docs, nettles and any other vegetation that is likely to run amok, but not intensively grazing to the point where the plants we want to flourish are damaged. However, it’s important that sunlight gets to the to the ground and grazing is very beneficial to the marsh ecology. Achieving our grazing goals is not as simple as it might seem. Left to their own devices, the herd will eat the tastiest and tenderest morsels first and leave the less palatable vegetation until last. We would like the cattle to graze the rubbish, but avoid the valuable plants. Unfortunately, getting the cattle to carry out the plan is impossible. So we encouraged and cajole the herd to do their best to achieve the required results. On the whole, though, providing they are not left in the same place for too long, all their efforts are beneficial to the marsh. How long the cattle are left in an area is a matter of judgement and balance….