News, stories and reports from Forestry Commission Scotland and the National Forest Estate

Cattle conservation grazing project

Protecting and managing our iconic landscapes requires some innovative thinking. In several sites across Scotland, we revived old forest management techniques to tackle a range of land use issues.

First Cross Heifer

Great Trossachs Forest, Loch Katrine

In 2009 we re-introduced 60 Highland Cows to the site to help maintain open space in the woodland.

Stewart Hendry, Grazing Manager for FCS explained: "The Highland Cows are perfect for the job because they are much less selective grazers than deer and sheep.

"Their heavy trampling of the ground can be a useful tool in stimulating regeneration of seedlings, and at higher grazing densities, the cattle will maintain open space in the woodland. This is good for biodiversity and will also help us to retain the stunning loch and mountain views."

Whitebred Shorthorn Cows Loch Katrine

The scheme is part of the Great Trossachs Forest project which aims to transform an area of patchwork woodland into a forest the size of Glasgow. We leased the Loch Katrine site from Scottish Water in 2005, with a view to expanding the surrounding native woodlands.

The Loch Katrine cattle are the first domestic livestock to graze the site for seven years after sheep were removed from the site by Scottish Water in 2002 over water contamination issues. A new water treatment plant has been built at Milngavie and permission granted to resume domestic livestock grazing in the area.

The Lodge, Aberfoyle

Today, for the first time there are cattle grazing in the woodlands between The Lodge Visitor Centre and Aberfoyle village hall.

The two yearling bulls, named 'Laochan of Katrine' and 'Katrine Kinchie', have been there since the start of May and are doing a good job of trampling some of the emerging bracken fronds in amongst the broadleaved trees and bluebells.

Laochan is a purebred Highland bull, and will hopefully produce many calves in his lifetime at Loch Katrine to help maintain the conservation grazing project.

Kinchie is a purebred Whitebred Shorthorn bull, and will produce first-cross calves in future years when bred with some of the Highland cows at Loch Katrine. These first-cross calves grow faster than the purebred Highland calves and demand higher prices in a cattle sale.

Kinchie and Laochan

The cows at Loch Katrine will finish calving in the next 3 weeks, with 74 calves born so far and just 6 still to arrive. Despite the bad weather and very late spring, the calving has gone exceptionally well this year, with the animals benefitting from natural shelter provided by native woodlands and tall scrubby vegetation on the lower slopes surrounding the loch.

Most of the cows and their calves will now be moved onto higher ground for the summer months, where they will be grazing dominant grasses down, to aid the recovery of our upland heath habitats. Meanwhile, many of our young animals (like Laochan and Kinchie) will graze other areas within the forest district including SSSIs and ancient wood pasture sites.

Glen Affric

Our Lochaber team are sending 20 of their 'Highland ladies' to Glen Affric for the summer in the hope that they will break up the moss and felling site debris and open the ground up for tree seedlings to establish.

Cattle at Glen Affric

Giles Brockman, Environment Manager, said: "One of our big conservation objectives is to improve the landscape but one of the main factors that works against us is the uncontrolled browsing of habitats. This is why we manage deer closely in order to limit the amount of damage that can be done. But there is still a place for controlled grazing – and that's where the cattle come in."

Efforts to improve the habitat quality in the main pine wood area in Glen Affric are achieving good results. The enclosures in South Affric have also achieved some strong natural regeneration of birch but the main enclosure within Glean nan Ciche, has filled up with competing vegetation which has slowed the natural regeneration of woodland.

Giles explained: "Thick ground vegetation can crowd out and greatly slow down woodland regeneration, so the trick is getting that fine balance between too much browsing and not enough browsing.

"We can very closely control the impact of cattle on the area and ensure that their browsing and trampling are used as essential tools in conservation habitat management."

"Outside the fences, browsing levels are still too high but we are slowly starting to see tree regeneration taking hold in places, which indicates that our management is heading in the right direction. But control and experimentation is the key to this long term project.

"For example, the montane willow colonies on the upper crags in Glean nan Ciche are now recognised as one of the best sites in Scotland and we can only continue to protect and enhance them through deer management.

"However, on the other hand, we also intend to remove fences from one fully developed enclosure, let the deer back in and see how the area reacts.

"It's only through this sort of active experimentation and testing different management theories that we will be able to find the best solution for maintaining habitats and ensuring a healthy level of biodiversity.

"It's good to know that Glen Affric – perhaps one of Scotland's most fascinating and historic locations is at the forefront of this work."