In general the breeds most suited to conservation grazing are the traditional ones which are in decline in the commercial beef industry where, overwhelmingly Friesian/Holstein crosses and the large continental breeds are favoured. Such animals need good pastures and a high concentrate input to thrive, neither of which commonly applies in the typical conservation situation. With the intensification of livestock farming the fortunes of most traditional breeds have waned, and many are now classified by the RBST as rare or endangered. This does not mean, however, that they are obsolete and should be allowed to join the passenger pigeon and the dodo! They possess a unique combination of qualities that are very valuable for low input sustainable systems. They are also well suited to organic farming. This is particularly true of the Shetland. The very qualities that have led to Shetlands being ignored for intensive production agriculture make them ideal for an environmental role. In particular, it is their unique combination of qualities which deserves to be better known to conservation managers seeking the most appropriate breed for their sites. What is on the check list for particular sites?
The Shetland has many great qualities that are highly desirable. It also offers several key attributes that make it a particularly excellent choice for a conservation grazing role:
- Versatile foragers. With appropriate management systems, they will thrive on swards ranging from low quality rough grassland to fertilised meadowland.
- Enthusiastic browsers. They will eat regenerating birch on lowland bogs, for example.
- Small to medium size (350-500 kgs). This is particularly important on wet sites or where out-wintered, as poaching is minimised.
- 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.
- Proven in a conservation role. They are currently grazing SSSI's 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.
Why should you choose Shetlands for a conservation grazing role when many of these attributes are shared with other traditional breeds? We would suggest the following reasons:
- Very few breeds, if any, are able to offer this combination of benefits.
- In many conservation situations it is essential to be able to use large herbivores without damaging the sward, especially on wet sites or where out wintering is desired. Shetlands' small size coupled with their calm demeanour makes them ideally suited to such sites at appropriate stocking rates.
- In choosing Shetlands you will be helping to bring a breed at risk back from the brink, conserving a valuable genetic resource and part of our heritage, at the same time as managing for wildlife and ecosystem biodiversity.
- Stock is readily available at very competitive prices.
- Last but not least, you will have the support of a breeders' association, run by experienced, enthusiastic owners, many of whom are themselves active in conservation grazing. Membership is free for the first year of ownership, and very competitive thereafter.
If you feel that Shetlands might be for you, but would like more information or advice before deciding, please do not hesitate to contact us. As a small association dedicated to our breed, we guarantee that you will receive ongoing support and advice as required.