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AFBI Research: understanding how to manage the UK hills and uplands

05 November 2021

Recent research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Hillsborough has highlighted the need for a future priority research programme to understand how farmers can effectively manage the hills and uplands, writes Dr Denise Lowe, Livestock Production Sciences Branch at Agri-food and Biosciences Institute Hillsborough in Northern Ireland, UK

These areas are dominated by beef and sheep farming and have huge potential for improved air and water quality, soil health, carbon footprint and biodiversity if properly managed whilst also producing a valuable product for the food system.

An initial scoping study entitled ‘Hills and Uplands for Beef and Sheep’ (HUBS), was undertaken to collate existing knowledge and identify knowledge gaps to develop a strategic long-term programme of research. This scoping study, which engaged extensively with stakeholders invested in the uplands and hills, identified that the key challenge in driving sustainability in these areas is to understand the synergies and trade-offs that exist between production and other ecosystems services and to have appropriate grazing strategies that optimise ecosystem services delivery.

It is well established from previous research that cattle are less selective grazers than sheep however cattle have been shown to be beneficial in terms of controlling invasive hill species such as Molinia caerulea. However at present there are no clear guidelines on how to best utilise cattle in a hill and upland environment in a positive way to restore and regenerate landscapes.

Previous research has focused on comparing native and continental breeds of cattle, but there is no clear consensus from the literature if it is advantageous to use native breeds in these environments. The focus now needs to be on how we use cattle in the hills and uplands, in terms of a systems approach with site- specific grazing plans.

Grazing practices can directly impact plant structure, composition and diversity within the terrestrial and aquatic environment. In particular, significant focus has been on grazing as a key type of disturbance within upland grazing systems which impacts on the composition, structure, diversity and physical properties of plant communities. However, there is also an important link between impacts of grazing and land management practices with instream aquatic diversity and water quality. For example, high grazing intensity can result in reduced plant cover leading to increased soil erosion and elevated sediment inputs to waterways.

The degree of grazing by either cattle and/or sheep can also contribute to soil compaction and increased surface runoff which can be particularly acute in the uplands due to the high connectivity between the terrestrial and aquatic system. Therefore, land management practices on hill and upland systems can directly impact, not only terrestrial plant diversity but also instream aquatic diversity. There is a clear need therefore to investigate the role of cattle grazing (and mixed grazing with sheep) in affecting soil carbon sequestration and soil greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, vegetation structure and diversity.

Another key area identified for future research included the need to investigate the role of alternative planting strategies, targeted spatial plantings and drainage measures in improving flood mitigation in upland farms and the effect of the role of re-wetting of drained peatlands to ameliorate peatland biogeochemistry. AFBI is currently seeking funding to begin to address these research gaps.

Dr Denise Lowe, who led the HUBS project said “There is a massive need for this holistic research into the ecosystem services that can be delivered from our farms in the hills and uplands. This is an exciting area of research going forward in this post-Brexit era where research can provide evidence to better understand holistically the wide range of roles that the uplands can provide to benefit not only the farming community but also wider society and the natural environment.”

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