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The Versatile Shetland: Shetland Cattle in Conservation Grazing

sssi Shetlands grazing Highland SSSI tidal marshland Photo © Paddy Zakaria
With livestock farming declining in many parts of the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find any graziers, let alone those with suitable stock. This has led many land managers and conservation organisations (natural, cultural and archaeological) to decide to manage their own stock. This fact sheet has been prepared to assist such organisations make an informed choice of breed for grazing conservation land. Ecologists and conservation managers will know how effective cattle grazing is for maintaining such sites in a healthy condition. What is sometimes not appreciated, however, is the importance of selecting the right breed attributes for the particular site requirements, which are frequently very different from those encountered in conventional production farming.
woods Shetlands on wood pasture Photo © Stephanie Holloway

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 your 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:

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:

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.