In this blog, Shona Morrison, Lewis Corncrake Warden, tells us all about the new NoFence collar technology being trialled for conservation grazing at Loch Stiapabhat reserve, Ness by cattle owned by Sweeny, a local Lewis crofter. This new technology has enormous potential to help crofters and farmers to sensitively graze abandoned and unfenced areas of land in remote areas, benefitting corncrakes other species and overall biodiversity.
When Sweeny, an active local crofter in Ness, approached me last October offering his cattle for conservation grazing in areas where there isn’t secure fencing I jumped at the offer! One of the problems locally here is that there are plenty of crofts that we could have for the schemes we offer, but it would mean a large financial outlay on replacing/improving fencing. Unless people are actively crofting, they generally aren’t spending money on the upkeep of fences. Currently, the price of materials isn’t helping this situation either.
Sweeny invested in some NoFence collars using the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme for assistance (he was eligible for a 60% grant). Before releasing the cattle, Sweeny plots the area he wants the cattle to graze on an app on his phone. The virtual boundary information is is sent wirelessly to the collars that hang on the cattle’s neck. He can also mark off sensitive or dangerous areas within the overall boundary to prevent unwanted grazing of specific vegetation and to keep the cattle safe.
Initially, he spent a week or so training the cattle within the safety of his secure croft. After a short learning period, the cattle realise they must turn when they hear the beep that the collar emits when they go near the virtual fence line that is marked out on the app. If they go any further, they will receive a slight shock, so they learn quickly.
As this is our first time trialling the cattle, Sweeny picked a nice, calm family unit. A mother (the black cow), last year’s female calf and this year’s female calf. They all have nice dispositions, so will hopefully be easy to work with. All three of the cows are pure Highland, so are designed to withstand the conditions of the Scottish Highlands. They are a very hardy breed so are perfectly suited to deal with the mixed sward on the crofts here.
This year’s calf doesn’t need a collar as she will just follow her mother and sister
The first location that immediately sprung to mind was Loch Stiapabhat. Last year, the RSPB Scotland entered into a 10-year management agreement alongside Urras Oighreachd Gabhsainn (Galson Estate Trust) to manage the habitat for waders and especially the corncrake. Due to the type of habitat Loch Stiapabhat has, lack of grazing there has always been an issue. The ground is so wet, it isn’t suitable for sheep, Konik ponies weren’t practical and it was proving hard to be able to graze cattle safely there as we couldn’t keep them out of the dangerous, boggy areas. With these NoFence collars on, however, the cattle are kept clear of the wet areas and are free to graze down areas that haven’t been touched for years. This will bring large areas of habitat back to life. The current vegetation there is old and thatched. With the cattle stripping the vegetation right back, in the spring it increases the areas the ground nesting birds can use. The corncrake doesn’t like rank vegetation, as it cannot run through it easily, so the fresh growth which winter grazing creates will suit it very well. In addition, wildflowers and fresh grasses will get a chance to grow through with the thatching removed, which will in turn help our pollinators such as butterflies, bees and moths.
Corncrake Calling, with funding support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund is enabling more crofts and farms with, suitable corncrake habitat to enter, RSPB Scotland’s “Corncrake Initiative” scheme”. This annual scheme offers a payment to crofters and farmers (who are not receiving corncrake payments from the government Agri-environment Climate Scheme (AECS)) for removing their livestock from their field between the 15th of March and the 15th of August. We can also enter crofters and farmers into this scheme if they wait until after the 1st of August to cut their hay or silage in a corncrake friendly manner. I have two more crofts on Lewis, which I would like to put the cattle on before the Corncrake Initiative cut-off date of March the 15th. One of these is a croft we didn’t manage to cut silage on last year, so it still has last years matted grass on it and, terrible fences so I can’t graze it. Another croft is a new one to Corncrake Initiative, that has an old fence which isn’t livestock proof, but it is right next to Loch Stiapabhat, so prime corncrake territory. This croft would need a new fence right round the perimeter, but with the NoFence collars, the cattle can graze it down for me and bring it back to life once again. This land hasn’t been grazed for approximately 10 years, so I am looking forward to seeing how that responds to cattle grazing.
You can see the Loch Stiapabhat in the background. The cattle are also grazing one of our land management agreement crofts here, which is a tricky place to get the topper to.
There are so many biodiversity benefits to cattle grazing. Cattle produce plenty of dung, which when deposited naturally on pasture can support huge numbers of insects such as flies and beetles. These insects in turn serve as food for birds such as the black headed gulls, starlings, curlews, oyster catchers, lapwings and other waders. These dig into the dung pats for the insect larvae and beetles, whilst swallows catch the aerial insects above the dung pat.
Cattle use their tongues to pull tufts of vegetation into their mouth. This means that they don’t graze vegetation too close to the ground, which will leave tussocks of grass which are used by small mammals and insects. Additionally, due to their wide mouth’s, cattle don’t graze selectively, so they don’t target the flower heads and herbage which is vital for botanically diverse habitats. Grazing cattle decide for themselves where to concentrate their grazing, so then produce a mosaic of sward heights and micro habitats. These mosaics will suit our ground nesting birds like snipe and lapwing who need a variety of different sward heights.
The NoFence collars are so far proving to be a good way forward with corncrake conservation locally, they have a great potential for conservation grazing across Scotland’s corncrake range and open up the possibility for many other conservation applications globally.
To find out more about advice and agreements available under Corncrake Calling or through the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS), please contact your local RSPB Scotland corncrake representative. RSPB can’t provide detailed advice on NoFence collars and the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme but further information can be found clicking on their included links.
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