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Cattle may be traditionally thought of as an animal of pasture, but they are increasingly being grazed in woodland, and within agroforestry systems. They are similar to the long-extinct Aurochs, which were native to Britain and used to maintain these ecosystems in the past.

Our livestock guides are intended to help you understand how the animal can be used in the context of nature recovery projects, and how they may benefit from wilder ecosystems and alternative land management.

These guides are not a single source of information for livestock care or handling, as this topic is the subject of entire books. Whether you have one cow or a whole herd, the Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle is recommended.

Impact on Woodland

Since the early 2000s, there has been a trend to blur the line between woodland and pasture, with cattle increasingly allowed access to wooded areas. We’ll examine the benefits for the cattle below, but what impact does this have on the ecosystem?

Cows selectively eat young tree seedlings, so even at low stocking density their grazing activity can slow natural regeneration of woodland. However, they are a functional replacement for native Aurochs and [possibly native] Bison, replicating their behaviour by trampling scrub and pushing through small trees and dense vegetation. This allows more light to reach the forest floor, creating a more diverse ground flora.

Their strong disturbance also generates a more mosaic-like underwood structure, and the broken-up vegetation and trampled soil reduces the dominance of invasive species like Bracken, while creating opportunities for seed germination.

Hawthorn, Holly, Rowan, Birch and Alder (ordered high to low avoidance) tend not to be eaten as readily by cattle, so overgrazing can create woodlands where these species are dominant. In contrast, Oak, Aspen and Willow are favoured by browsing animals – Oak only tends to succeed when protected by bramble or thorny scrub. But there is often plenty of scrub in lightly-grazed woodlands, and the higher light levels favour Oak regeneration.

Landowners recommend grazing woodland in Summer or Winter, but not in Spring, when ground flora is most vulnerable to grazing and trampling. Winter and Autumn grazing can lead to poaching of soils on wetter ground, but have less direct impact on plants. Most landowners tend to graze woodland for only a limited timespan, ranging from two days to four months per year, due to the implications of longer term grazing on tree regeneration. While conservation researchers suggest the sustainable level of grazing in this habitat is just 0.1 LU/ha year-round, most landowners with cattle in woodland far-exceed this recommendation.

The impacts of this typical high stocking density have a measurable impact on tree regeneration. The higher the density and more frequent the grazing, the less likely you are to find natural regeneration of trees. Even on sites grazed for just two months per year, healthy regeneration is found at only 25% of locations – this drops to just 5% when year-round grazing is implemented.

Woodland soils are dominated by fungal activity, whereas grassland soils are dominated by bacteria. This is a defining characteristic of woodland – so much so, that dumping woodchip on trees planted in grassland, can shift the soil community towards fungi and improve tree growth rate. Yet, in a study of woodland with moderate to high stocking density of cattle (8.4 LU/ha), the soil ecosystem gradually shifted away from fungi and towards bacteria over a 25 year period. This hints at the longer term impact of cattle grazing, which is likely to shift more highly-grazed areas away from woodland, towards more open, glade-like habitats.

Grazing of birch and oak woodland appears to quite significantly improve overall plant diversity. The habitat disturbance, patchy redistribution of nutrients in dung and increase in light penetration improve biodiversity at ground and underwood level.

Grazing woodland is complicated – cattle can gradually revert this habitat to grassland at moderate to high levels of grazing. Yet, without cattle, in the long term, tree species with high light requirements like Oak no longer grow to maturity, replaced by Beech. Sunlight at ground level and in the underwood slowly diminishes, in a process that would be countered by large herbivore activity in wild woodlands. Except that our wild herbivores (deer) don’t tend to break up the underwood layer as they aren’t ‘tramplers’. So, light to moderate, occasional cattle grazing may be a useful functional replacement for missing wild herbivores, as it can improve light penetration at ground level.

Cows in orchard silvopasture
Orchards are a valuable way of vertically-stacking productivity, and cattle thrive under the shade here.

Tips for Managing Cattle in Woodland

  • The most common breeds raised in woodland, in order of frequency are Highland, Aberdeen Angus, Limousin, Shorthorn, Luing, North Devon and Welsh Black.
  • Oak trees go through a cycle of typical years and ‘mast years’ when bountiful acorns are produced. In mast years, cattle may overeat the acorns and this can cause poisoning.
  • In Wet Woodland habitats, liver fluke is an issue. 
  • Cattle tend to stick to gentle slopes and flat grassland where it is available, avoiding steep slopes.
  • A herd will typically wander about half a mile from feeding sites and cover 2-3 miles per day.
  • Broadleaf Wales – a good example of a regenerative farm and timber production site – only houses cattle in woodland for 1-2 days per year, to minimise the impact on the ecosystem
  • Some conservation grazing organisations exist at a local level, which hire out cattle for woodland regeneration projects on a short term basis
 
Moo cows
Even conventional breeds of cow seek out the shade of woodland if given the opportunity, like in this Hazel coppice.

Benefits of Woods and Agroforestry

Livestock tends to be fond of sites where they can move easily between woodland and pasture. You will often find them in the shade of the trees, which has the potential to improve meat and milk yield by reducing heat stress in summer and protecting them from the elements in winter.

Researchers have found that livestock experience dramatically less stress when kept in agroforestry systems. This may largely be due to the effects of temperature – for every 1°C below an animal’s ‘critical temperature’, they require 2% more food, and exposure to wind and/or rain increases this effect. High summer temperatures appear to increase stress hormone levels. Woodland, hedges and agroforestry act like a ‘living barn’, reducing the impact of weather.

Farmers with small fields surrounded by dense woodland report that they can keep typical cows out for 10.5 months per year due to the protection this affords them from harsh winter weather. But in-field trees are even better, especially if cows are able to browse on them. Due to their deep roots, many trees are bioaccumulators of minerals that are missing in the cattle diet, reducing the need for supplements and boosting animal health.

Switching to tree fodder shouldn’t be harmful to livestock, except if they browse woodland intensely, late in the season, when gut compaction can occur from high wood content in the diet. This syndrome is known as ‘wood evil’ and is unlikely in a mixed pasture and woodland system.

Where boundary woodlands act as a non-browsed barrier, providing shelter from rain, wind and sun, they can also prevent nose to nose contact between livestock, reducing the risk of disease transmission (especially TB). These woods are a useful source of firewood for the farm, chestnut palings for fencing, and other timber produce.

In woodland, farmers report that cattle gain weight twice as fast as on pasture, with general improvements to health, especially lameness. This doesn’t necessarily extend to silvopasture systems, where the mix of grassland and woodland may not be quite as productive as a pure pasture. 

However, there are other benefits – even when cattle are quarantined in barns, feeding them with branches of willow appears to speed their recovery. The animals also showed a clear preference for drinking water in which willow had been stood, compared with ‘clean’ water.

Alley cropped pasture diagram
You can retrofit an alley-cropping system into an existing field.

Alley Cropping Pasture System

At Eastbrook Farm near Swindon, they have a demonstration of alley cropping which is easy and cheap to set up, as shown above, and allows farmers to stack timber and fruit production with beef and/or dairy pasture.

Large fields are subdivided into 24m wide alleys, which are suitable for the largest farm machinery, with open ‘headlands’ for turning. Along the sides of the alleys are single strand high tensile electric wire, mounted and tensioned on wooden posts (pictured below).

Cattle are mob-grazed in shifts across the field – one end of each alley is always closed with a single strand of electric wire. The other end is hooked on and closed only when cattle are inside. Both ends can be opened for mowing or harvesting of tree crops.

Calves can be accommodated by adding a second, lower strand of electric wire. Cattle graze each strip once every 35-60 days depending on the season, allowing grass to recover. They are quickly moved from one alley to the next by opening one end of the fence.

Along the sides of each alley, there is a mix of tree crops, providing shelter from the elements – these should not sucker into the field (e.g. Aspen, White Poplar), absorb too much water (e.g. Hybrid Poplar), or be toxic to livestock (e.g. Privet, Oak, Yew). Suitable species include Cherry, Service Tree and Hornbeam.

Fence in regenerative pasture
This alley cropping system at Eastbrook Farm combines cattle and timber production in the same field.

Diverse Pastures

Beyond the woodland fringe, there is huge potential for creating a diverse plant community which maintains healthy cattle, resilient pastures and higher biodiversity. 

Herbal leys are increasingly popular among farmers shifting to a regenerative system. These are a mix of different plants, which combine to perform a number of different functions in the grassland. Most experts recommend that herbal leys are grazed in a rotational system, such as mob stocking, allowing the grassland to recover between uses.

Fertiliser (effective)

Nitrogen-fixation isn’t new to farming, and most pasture farmers have been using a clover/rye grass mix for many years. Clover continues to play a strong role in a herbal ley as it maintains nutrient inputs into this system. Deeper-rooted legumes like sainfoin and lucerne can provide additional drought resilience.

Soil Structure & Minerals (effective)

Overgrazed pastures and land with a high water table may suffer from soil compaction. Deep-rooted plants like Chicory not only break up this compacted soil, but also bring minerals to the surface, acting as bioaccumulators and enriching the livestock diet. This reduces the need for dietary supplements.

Drought Resilience (effective)

With deeper roots in the mix, and a more diverse range of plants, a herbal ley is more drought tolerant, allowing it to thrive in increasingly dry summer weather.

Parasite Load (effective)

Some plants are effective at improving parasite resistance in cattle and sheep. Chicory in particular has been shown to be effective against stomach parasites in multiple studies. Feeding birdsfoot trefoil was also found to reduce parasite egg counts in heifer dung. Reducing the use of worming medication can allow dung beetle populations to recover, which boosts pasture health by returning nutrients to the soil.

Yield (dependent on mix)

The impacts of herbal leys on yield are variable – generally-speaking, the higher the proportion of nitrogen-fixing species, the faster your livestock will gain weight. However, this is also true for monoculture clover etc, which lacks many of the benefits listed above.

Carbon (insignificant)

While some sources, including the government, herald herbal leys’ ability to capture carbon, this tends to be overstated. In short term rotations, the impact is barely noticeable, while a longer term study recorded a (non statistically significant) increase in soil organic carbon stocks of less than 4% per year.

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