This week I have been back infront of the cameras with Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped. They want to know if you can taste the difference in that taste of North Ronaldsay mutton due to their seaweed diet. In was a pretty soggy day, but we battled on through the rain.
This month I have “gone back to school” by starting a part-time disctance learning MSc in Wildlife and Conservation Management. Normally there’d be a study weekend in Scotland, where we’d all get to meet, but it was all online this year so it’s weird not having met any of my classmates.
The MSc is with Scotland Rural College and over the next 3 years I’ll be looking at a broad range of topics and land uses ranging from conservation management to rural land use planning and interpretation to sustainability. The first 2 years are taught and the 3rd year is for my dissertation, where I’ll be using our lovely native sheep as conservation grazers, which I spoke about at the Orkney Internation Science Festival.
Conservation grazing is use of livestock, such as sheep and cows, to restore or maintain biodiverse habitats. Livestock are a more sustainable alternative to the fossil-fuel driven machines commonly used today.
Conservation grazers remove plant material through browsing, including coarse vegetation which can out compete wildflowers. One method is mob grazing, which is short duration and high density. So you’d have a small area with a few sheep on and moving them every couple of days or so. Mob grazing results in landscape mosaicness – the vegetation in a given area is of varying heights. These tall and short patches of vegetation can support a greater diversity of insects than would be possible if the vegetation was all of a similar height and structure.
As the sheep browse and trample the vegetation they open up the sward at ground level, which provides a range of micro-climates and habitats for a wider range of invertebrates. Their hooves also disturb the ground, opening up the seed bank in the soil and light poaching is useful to put organic matter back into the soil and create space for plant populations to increase.
Conservation grazers also enrich the soil with their dung, which has it’s own characteristic fauna of dung beetles and dung flies.
These primitive breeds are ideal in conservation grazing. They are small and light and so they don’t compact the ground heavily. They are very hardy animals and so require minimal management. Here in the video Norbert and Fang are eating perennial sow thistle.
This map was taken from Habitat Map of Scotland, produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot), and shows areas of machair throughout Orkney.
North Ronaldsay provides the rare conditions needed for machair habitat. Machair is a Gaelic word meaning a fertile, low-lying grassy plain and its only found on the coast in North and West of Scotland and in Western Ireland, it occurs nowhere else in the world. Machair habitat is a blend of low-lying coastline, sand partly consisting of shell fragments, the effects of strong winds, just the right amount of rainfall, and the involvement of people and their grazing animals.
Machair habitats are important for many plant, bird and invertebrate species. In particular, the great yellow bumblebee. The great yellow bumblebee is one of the rarest bumblebee species native to the UK and they are in decline due to the loss of flower-rich habitats.
Orkney is one remaining stronghold for the great yellow bumblebee, with sightings as far North as Papay and Sanday in recent years. Restoration of machair habitat on North Ronaldsay could increase Orkney’s population of great yellow bumblebees.
Grazing is an important part of machair management. Areas that are grazed in winter and stock-free in summer have the best flowers for great yellow bumblebees. My project in the North West of North Ronaldsay (at Westness) will use the indigenous sheep to restore machair habitat, with the view to encourage Great Yellow Bumblebees onto the island!