In May 2021, we welcomed four young, pedigree Galloway cows to Carbeth Home Farm. Their breeder, Maggie Gordon, from Barfil Farm, carefully preserves the ancient genetics of the breed, retaining the hardiness and small size that make these animals so well suited to conservation grazing. Many modern Galloways have been selected for more commercial characteristics, such as faster, leaner growth, that make beef production more profitable.
The girls are already hard at “work”, grazing and fertilising the fields, providing food and habitats for all sorts of flora and fauna. They have three principle roles to fulfil in the Carbeth team:
A little Galloway history
The Galloways we see today are descended from the native cattle of south-west Scotland. These were small, hardy animals, with thick, curly coats to protect them from the elements. Originally their coats varied a great deal in colour and pattern, but when the breed was first formally registered in the 17th Century, only black animals made it to the herd book. Black is still the most common colour, but they can also be many shades of white, red and dun; and can be relatively uniform in colour, “belted” or “riggit”.
Galloways were first exported to Canada in the mid 19th Century, and the first Galloway registry was introduced in the United States in 1882. They were introduced to Australia in 1951.
Why are Galloways so well suited to Carbeth Home Farm?
The particular qualities that make Galloways so well suited to life at Carbeth are their hardiness and small stature.
Having evolved to withstand the harshest of Scottish winters, given reasonable shelter from the wind, and sufficient grazing, Galloway cattle can happily live outdoors without supplementary feeding all year round. This makes them economical to keep, but also minimises their carbon footprint, since they do not require additional feeding and bedding. Their ability to promote soil fertility and biodiversity with their grazing and dung is of course enhanced by their year round presence on the pasture, and dung beetles in particular require year round sources of dung.
Our wet climate makes our pasture very fragile, and prone to “poaching” – where the weight and movement of the animals tramples the grass in to the soft ground, leaving only mud. A degree of disturbance of the soil can be helpful in order to establish greater diversity of plants, but extensive poaching substantially reduces the quantity of fodder available to grazing animals.
What is conservation grazing?
In the United Kingdom and throughout most of Europe, our native flora and fauna evolved over many millennia alongside grazing animals – cattle, deer, ponies and wild boar. Each of these animals has a slightly different grazing style, and plays a slightly different role in the ecosystem, but all have some impact on the environment through their grazing, soil disturbance and manure.
Sheep are very selective grazers, who nibble the tender grass down very close to the soil, but will leave coarser grasses, and many other coarser plants such as nettles, rushes and most shrubs. Where sheep are the only grazing animals on the land, mechanical and even chemical intervention can be required to control some plants, to prevent them from dominating. Cattle leave the grasses longer, which is good for many invertebrates, and allows wild flowers to establish, where the short cropping style of sheep grazing would not give them a chance. Their manure provides food and habitats for invertebrates, who drag it down in to the soil, feeding the soil micro-organisms, helping to improve the soil’s structure and carbon storage potential, and increasing the availability of nutrients for plants (soil fertility).
What outcomes are we hoping for?
As long-established permanent pasture, the carbon content of our soil at Carbeth is already high, when compared with arable land, but a further increase would of course be very welcome.
We hope and expect to see improved biodiversity on the land that has been grazed by the cattle. This will include a greater range of plants growing among the grasses, some of which will hopefully be flowering plants that will benefit pollenating insects. An increase in dung beetles will be an excellent indicator of success, as improved soil fertility and greater food sources for birds will inevitably follow.
Galloways have an exceptional ability to thrive on very low quality ground that would otherwise be economically unproductive, so by producing high welfare, sustainable beef, and by breeding from these cows, perpetuating their carefully preserved genetics, we hope to begin to diversify the farm income in a time of great uncertainty.