Life in the meadow

PUBLISHED: 11:03 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

Life in the meadow

Life in the meadow

Each month Ruth Watkins investigates a different Herefordshire crop. This month she looks at grass, which we tend to take for granted.

Each month Ruth Watkins investigates a different Herefordshire crop. This month she looks at grass, which we tend to take for granted.

"Grass," said Will Watkins, who has farmed it all his life in the Monnow valley, "is a very political subject."

Whoa! Step back there, because we have swathes of it in Herefordshire. Well over half our 182 thousand farmed acres are pasture land and grass leys. Emerald in the spring, then wearing napped and faded through the year, grass dominates our view. We are fortunate to have it, not only because it's beautiful, but because it has unequalled ecological value.


"It's the ultimate conservation crop," went on Will. "It builds the humus, creating a structure that stabilises the soil, holding it together and making it fertile. You can't grow arable crops continuously." Without grass, land would become exhausted, while steep land, of which we have quite a lot in Herefordshire, cannot be useful at all. Without grass there would be gross erosion, loss of fertility, and even more flooding than we suffer now. Grassland is the best sponge.


Thanks to their dense root systems, grasses are tenacious and successful colonisers the world over, and have been for a long time. Fossilised grass is found in fossilised dinosaur dung, and quarter of the world's surface is grassland in various guises: prairie, steppe, pampas, and moorland. "Grass is the engine of Africa," an African friend colourfully told me.

But here in Herefordshire grass doesn't seem exotic or political; in fact, we take it for granted. Except for the brief summer frenzy of harvesting when bales stand sentinel to the coming winter, grass looks more relaxing than it actually is. Farmers have to plan and work to get more grass. Harrowing refreshes the roots, while rolling presses in stones and unevenness. Moles have to be controlled. Pernicious weeds like creeping thistle and nettles must be topped annually to prevent their spread. This haircut also rejuvenates uneven swards and old grass, gone to seed.

Clover, either planted or naturally colonised, is a natural companion to grass. Like all leguminous plants it can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil via bacteria on its roots for other plants to use. If you see a farmer bend to stroke the grass, he's admiring the clover in it.

But by far the most valuable source of fertility for land is livestock. They return goodness to the soil in their faeces, either as they graze, or in the muck that is spread back over it. Depending on the grazing and muckspreading regime, the kind of grass, and the percentage of clover, an acre can yield as much as 15 tonnes of grass a year.

But for all its ecological value, the problem with grass is that, with our single measly stomach and modest length of intestine, we cannot eat it. At the risk of stating the obvious, to sustain the current human population we have to find a way to use grass. This is where ruminants come in.

They have multiple stomachs colonised with cellulose-digesting bacteria and protozoa, and long, long intestines. A sheep has over 20 yards of it. Their digestive systems are ingenious; they store each snatch of grass away in the rumen, the first and most enormous of four stomachs. Then it is balled up as cuds in the next stomach to be chewed later and returned as liquid grass where it filters through baleen-like leaves to the true stomach with gastric juices.

Cattle and sheep together make convenient grazing partners. Whereas sheep bite grass and like it short, cattle prefer longer grass to curl their rough tongues around, and pull. Their parasites are specific, so cattle and sheep often follow in rotation, clearing up each other's worm eggs. It's symbiosis at its best.

Grazing livestock are protein factories. In the case of a large cow with a rumen capacity of up to 50gallons, converting around a hundredweight of grass a day into high quality, nutrient-rich protein that humans can eat. This makes Herefordshire's grass-fed red meat our most ecologically sustainable protein source bar none, except possibly any nuts and berries you gather.

Even factoring in animal methane production (the result of all those protozoa), it makes an arguable equation of George Monbiot's claim at the Climate March in London recently that a vegan in a 4 x 4 does less environmental damage than a meat-eater on a bicycle. That they convert the world's best cover into something we can eat whilst at the same time creating much-needed fertility gives cattle and sheep a special place in the food chain.

"A world full of vegetarians will wonder where the fertility is coming from to grow all their food," said Will, passionate about grazing livestock.

In a county with so much grass, no wonder the farming world dreads news like that last August, when Foot & Mouth disease was diagnosed in Britain again. But those in the know reckon Blue Tongue is a bigger threat to Britain's livestock.

"There'll be a tense time around May when the weather warms up, because we won't have enough vaccine for this serotype-8 strain of Blue-tongue. There are 24 strains, and this one came straight up from the Sahara and took all Europe by surprise. They didn't realise how potent it was," said David Morgan of Peterchurch, Herefordshire's NFU chairman. He told me Belgium lost 20% of its sheep flock to Blue-tongue last autumn, and blood testing revealed that the disease is more prevalent here than first thought.

"The midges that carry it can fly ten miles an hour for ten hours, more in a tail-wind. The Channel's no problem." Nobody will hazard a guess yet how serious Blue-tongue could be to the grazing economy.

There is another important challenge for grassland farmers, which is already leading to grass fields deteriorating. Farmers used to be paid by Europe to keep cattle and sheep for the very reasons described above; grass is good for the countryside and ruminants produce valuable food. After an overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2005, the grazing of livestock is no longer supported directly by European payments. Instead DEFRA pays farmers to keep the landscape in good condition. They don't stipulate how, beyond penalising anyone who does not comply.

Because returns for livestock are below production costs, breeding numbers are dropping rapidly and we are beginning to see two results. More grass is being brought under the plough, which can be a mixed blessing in preserving landscapes. Other grassland areas are not being grazed at all, or are way under capacity. In the Malverns Hills they have had to re-introduce sheep at a cost because they are better lawnmowers than men on tractors.

Just at the moment, beef prices are on the up because as David Morgan told me, "the supply and demand crossroads has been met." But sheep prices have been in the doldrums for most of many years. Their landscape value is becoming the only incentive to keep sheep. If prices remain consistently low, the only reason to keep sheep will be as lawnmowers on four legs.

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