I’ve been busy for a couple of weeks removing thistle, ragwort and other invasive plants from the northern pastures, with help from our rare breed marsh cattle. Heavy rain storms have encouraged the marsh vegetation to grow particularly vigorously, especially the invasive plant species we are trying to eradicate. To be fair, the cattle have reduced a lot of soft, course and rough vegetation, which is their job after all, and they are a great help in our quest to reestablish the northern pastures, (although it’s all just food to them; they are not at all altruistic), and their appetite for thistle is increasing. Ragwort is poisonous and, fortunately, the cattle won’t eat it. If I cut ragwort, it will grow back more aggressively next year, so it’s better to pull or dig it from the ground and stack it outside of the perimeter stock fences to rot. Another solution, but not one I favour, is to chemically treat it.
One of the problems with grazing Wilden Marsh is the vast amount and varied choice of succulent and tasty vegetation our nine cattle have to eat; they inevitably go for the tastiest morsels first, leaving the tough and less palatable plants, like docks and thistles, to shed their seeds and multiply, which is not part of the management plan.
In July we start removing thistles, ragwort and a small amount of Himalayan balsam from the south marsh entrance (the scrap yard area).
The marsh cattle are attracting quite a bit of interest. Increasingly, I answer questions from concerned locals and many other interested parties around the world.
During winter cold spells, some people worry about the safety and comfort of the marsh cattle. Well, I can tell everyone that the Shetland and belted Galloway cattle grazing Wilden Marsh are extremely hardy; having been bred to cope with the harsh, wet, windy and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands and exposed hills of Scotland, Wilden Marsh doesn’t stress them at all – they live like bovine kings and queens. To quote from the 1912 Herd Book “They are extraordinarily hardy, the weaklings having died out long ago.” Historically, during Shetland winters, cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” Thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past; the resilience acquired lives on though.
Here are some of the most sought after attributes offered by the Shetland breed:
- They are extremely hardy, having been bred to cope with the often harsh, wet and windy conditions and impoverished terrain of the Shetland Islands. Historically, during Shetland winters cattle often had to endure what has been called “controlled malnutrition.” While thankfully such husbandry is a thing of the past, the resilience acquired, lives on.
- They are self-sufficient and will readily out-winter.
- They are versatile foragers. With appropriate management systems, they will thrive on swards ranging from low quality rough grassland to fertilised meadowland.
- They are enthusiastic browsers and will eat regenerating birch on lowland bogs, for example.
- They do not need expensive concentrates, although, if out-wintered on low protein forage, in common with other traditional breeds, they will benefit from access to protein blocks that stimulate rumen activity.
- They are calm, easy to handle, do not require special handling equipment like Highlanders, and can be trained to come to the bucket if required (they were the original house cow of the Shetland crofter).
- They are very fertile and extremely easy calving when bred pure (second only to the Jersey in pelvis width), and are very attentive mothers, making them ideal suckler cows.
- They are long lived, and will continue to breed into their mid-teens, or even twenties in some cases.
- They range from small to medium in size (350-500 kgs). This is particularly important on wet sites or where out-wintered, as poaching is minimised.
- They are popular with the public – aesthetically attractive with black and white or red and white markings and “Viking style” short horns; not aggressive; their small size makes them non-threatening; bulls are docile in company with cows; and people are interested in their rarity and heritage.
- They are “dog proof” and will defend young calves against dog attack, but they rarely show aggression to their owners, even with new-born calves.
- Animals not required for breeding are readily marketable, as they produce excellent beef. They are eligible for the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Scheme where they command a substantial price premium, and are eagerly sought by TBMMS finishing units.
- It is one of the faster finishing native breeds, in most cases ready for slaughter well within 30 months off grass, an excellent economic benefit.
- They are well proven in a conservation role. They are currently grazing SSSIs comprising everything from Scottish lowland bog to English heathland and coastal grazing marsh to woodland in the Midlands, and have been selected by the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, County Councils and unitary authorities among others.
The marsh cattle are well looked after. They are not just left to get on with it; I check on them every day, and move them from one gated pasture to another as necessary.