The birds and the beef
Far from being an ecological enemy, cattle-grazing encourages natural diversity and helps in the battle to save some of our most endangered species
This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
When it comes to killing the planet, we’re frequently told that all things cow are practically akin to cocaine. From that 16oz sirloin you had last Saturday to those White Russians you like to drink when you go dancing in Soho, it’s ecocide, one mouthful at a time. The narrative runs that, just like growing gak, “big beef” requires vast tracts of land to be ploughed up and turned over to production, with the inevitable result that wildlife is wiped out as vital habitats are lost.
Almost three years ago, with a vague plan of writing a book, I set off across Britain, in the hope of seeing ten of our most endangered birds. It had suddenly occurred to me that if I didn’t see the likes of a turtle dove, a capercaillie, or a corncrake soon, I probably never would. As well as wanting to see and hear these various birds, I also wanted to meet those who are devoting their lives to trying to save them, and to understand why they feel it matters so much.
I had a good idea of some of the hurdles that these conservationists, farmers, and scientists face, but what I didn’t fully grasp is the extent to which cattle — specifically the right cows in the right places — are essential in the fight against the extinction of many of our most endangered birds. Some are wont to rebel against biodiversity loss by glueing themselves to the pavement, and fair play to them. But in reality, you can also do your bit by going in search of the right bit of beef.
In early November 2020, I visited the Galloway cattle sale in Castle Douglas with local farmer Patrick Laurie. To those who want beasts that you can send off to the abattoir at twelve months old, slow-growing Galloways are an unattractive prospect, but to Patrick they aren’t just flesh. They are an integral part of his struggle to save the black grouse, a species that was once found in every corner of the country but is now disappearing, in some places, at a rate of up to 40 per cent a year.
Part of the trouble, on patches of ground where black grouse once thrived, is that moorland which isn’t grazed becomes dominated by rank grass and bracken. The effect is that heather and blaeberry, both important parts of the black grouse’s diet, are totally crowded out.
Patrick pays a relatively small amount of money to graze his cattle but he told me he’s very aware that the landowners, who he rents ground from, are forever looking over his shoulder and wondering whether they should plough it all up and plant non-native commercial forestry blocks. The effect on the land, as habitat for everything from black grouse to lapwings to curlew, is ruinous but the potential revenue is tremendous.
The great irony is that in a world where trees are posited as the answer to our ecological woes and cows are deemed to be the devil, there are very few people speaking out against the scourge of forestry. Those who do are generally hill farmers and gamekeepers, and as they told me time and time again when I was researching my book, policymakers aren’t much bothered about anything they’ve got to say.
As Patrick and I leant over the rail, watching a large bull blowing snot all over its face, while the silver-tongued auctioneer ratcheted up the price, he explained that unlike fast-growing commercial beasts, which tend to be better suited to an easy life in a shed, native cattle such as Galloways will smash up and eat all of the rank vegetation.
All of that suffocating grass and all of that bracken. “I’d almost say,” he added as the auctioneer banged the gavel at 3,400 guineas, “that if there are native beasts on the hill round here, over the winter, you’ll have black grouse in spring.”
When it comes to killing the planet, we’re told that all things cow are akin to cocaine
Six months later, in West Wales, I went to stay with a farmer who has devoted almost everything he has to trying to save the lapwing, an iridescent wading bird with a haunting cry that has declined by almost 90 per cent in the past forty years. Like so many of the people who feature in my book, Charles Grisedale sees lapwings as totemic — the day they go, will be a day he loses a deep-rooted part of himself. As Charles stood in the straw after we’d had dinner (his own sausages), going for a pee next to one of his South Devons which was expected to calf in the night, he looked back and told me that his animals are essential in maintaining his fields as prime lapwing habitat.
When Charles was a boy, he remembers the first book he ever had being all about birds. “It said in it that lapwings are very common, and there was a picture of them nesting between grazing cattle. When the young hatch, the hen lapwing is happy there because the grass is short and her chicks don’t get swamped.” Charles zipped up his fly and went to rub the russet muzzle of the expectant mother. “That’s the farming job done properly,” he said, as he ran his hand down her face, “isn’t it, girl?”
That night, over a bottle of whisky, Charles bemoaned the reality that in places such as East Anglia, hundreds of thousands of lapwings have been lost because of stock being taken off ground and wheat, barley and peas being planted instead. “A lot of the time the crops are sown in autumn then harvested the following summer, so when lapwings are looking to nest in spring the cover is already too tall,” he explained.
It was May when I went to see Charles and seven weeks later, in the summer heat, I went up to Uist in search of corncrakes. In 1832, John Clare, the great rustic poet of the Romantic school, who started work as a farm labourer at the age of seven, wrote that, “Boys know the note of many a bird / In their birdnesting bounds / But when the landrail’s noise is heard / They wonder at the sounds.”
Corncrakes were historically known as landrails and the striking call that Clare refers to sounds like a credit card being run across a plastic comb. When Clare wrote those lines, corncrakes could be heard in every English county but, except for the odd vagrant, they’ve now all but gone from England. They are only just holding out on Scotland’s northwestern periphery.
Up on Uist, I met Angus MacDonald, who has farmed on the island, man and boy. He explained to me that if there is any hope for the corncrake, it lies in the traditional crofting system. The old crofting cycle saw cattle being grazed on the low ground in the winter, before being sent up to the hill in spring. The result was that when the corncrakes returned from Africa, “they’d have the run of the place. They would flourish with nothing to stop them.”
Angus has been very successful and over the years he’s been able to take on new bits of ground and has witnessed the corncrakes recovering when he implements the old ways. “That’s one of the main features why I do so much of what I do,” he told me, as we sat on upturned fish boxes in his shed, next to a sickly calf. “This would be a very dead and dull place without corncrakes. What’s the point if you don’t have the wildlife?”
When I first rang Angus, back in 2020, he’d been relatively cool about me visiting until I told him that my Aunt Karen had taken the record, the previous year, for a Highland heifer at the Oban sale. “You mean that three-year-old, Anna of Eilean Mor? Eight thousand guineas. Now that really was a very fine animal.”
Cow shit brings the land to life
The pedigree cattle world is a small one and Karen later explained to me that they’ve been trading beasts with Angus for decades and similarly to him, they view Highland cattle as an essential part of promoting biodiversity on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula where they farm. “You’ll have to come and see for yourself,” she said, when I called. “The island where we graze our cattle is just full of life: oystercatchers, snipe, curlew, and lapwings. They’re all there and they wouldn’t be if it wasn’t farmed.”
Part of the benefit is that, because cattle generally only extract about 10 to 30 per cent of the nourishment their food contains, the rest of it ends up sputtering out as dung. The result is a steaming feast of rich goodness for beetles and flies. It wouldn’t be a pretty job but those who’ve counted have totted up over 200 beetles on a single cow pat, which in turn provides food for some of our most endangered birds. In short, the shit brings the land to life.
My aunt, like lots of farmers, doesn’t have the right ground to “finish” her cattle on, so her calves are generally sold at market as store beasts, which get finished and then sent to the abattoir by somebody else. “The provenance at that point gets lost, in a sense, and the people who buy the beef don’t know they’ve contributed to making the West Highlands a better place,” she explained.
But by her reckoning, there’s a bit of a failure of marketing going on. “Surely,” she suggested, “people would be keen on buying a product with a picture of a lapwing or a redshank or a curlew on it.” She laughed when I told her that in all honesty, I didn’t really know whether it was a brilliant idea and shoppers would go mad for it or whether most people would have no idea what those birds are and wouldn’t think it matters much anyway.
A couple of months back, after the BBC Panorama programme on the horrors of dairy farming (“A Cow’s Life, The True Cost of Milk?”), I caught up with Patrick Laurie. He’s no fan of intensive milk production but at the same time he was in despair that cattle are so frequently trotted out as the greatest cause of our environmental woes when he knows them to be an essential part of saving the black grouse, a bird that by his own admission, means almost everything to him.
He was on his way to feed his beasts when I called, but storm Eunice was raging so he was happy to sit in his truck and grumble. As he sees it, half the world thinks cattle are killing the planet and the rest are generally only happy to pay for beef produced in a way that actually is. “We’ve got this glass ceiling,” he shouted over the wailing wind, “where nobody, down the pub, when they’re out for Sunday lunch, is prepared to pay more than 20 quid for a steak. They might tell you they care about the world, but they’d rather save the money.”
He was reluctant to commit to a hard figure when I asked him what people should pay for a product like his or my aunt’s or Charles Grisedale’s, but he said he reckoned I was about right when I suggested 40 quid for a nice bit of ribeye.
Legalities aside, perhaps the cocaine comparison is an appropriate one. Beef shouldn’t be an everyday thing. More like a once-a-month indulgence, for which you ought to pay through the nose. The difference of course is that cocaine is destroying the beauty of the world whereas native cattle, grazing away in a bit of rough country, can truly help to save it.
In Search of One Last Song is out now in hardback with William Collins
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