The half-ton heroes of the Cheshire countryside

Not everyone wants to get their boots muddy to help wildlife, but now a new project means we can all have a taste of the action – and make a real difference. Tom Marshall reports

 

Next year will see the Cheshire Wildlife Trust celebrate 50 years at the forefront of wildlife conservation in the Cheshire region. Over those five decades hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers have dedicated their time to protecting the natural world on our doorstep. In recent years however, the Trust has brought in the heavies.

Based at their 206 acre farm near Malpas, the Trust now has the fourth largest herd of native breed Longhorn cattle in the country, along with the slightly smaller Dexter breed and 300 distinctive black Hebridean sheep. But why all the hairy new staff?

Living Landscape scheme manager Richard Gardner explains: ‘Since the birth of conservation as we now it at the beginning of the last century, the emphasis has been on the protection of nature reserves or other pockets of land, but that emphasis has now shifted.

‘Although the Trust still looks after a vital network of 44 nature reserves over around 500 hectares, we’re now looking to the wider countryside to link these perfectly-managed pieces of the habitat jigsaw with the rest of the landscape.’

This is what the Trust calls a Living Landscape, and their first ambitious scheme is focused around a natural ‘corridor’ through the region along the Gowy and Mersey rivers to the south of Chester and leading up the iconic estuary.

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Traditionally these river corridors would have been fringed with periodically grazed wet meadows – a haven for lapwings tumbling above the cattle, and snipe ‘drumming’ with their tail feathers at sunset. The key to the recovery of these and other species however lies closer the ground – and that’s where the Longhorns and Dexters come in.

‘We like to see the Longhorns as our living lawnmowers,’ Richard added. ‘Although they won’t make anywhere near as neat a job as your Flymo, that’s exactly what we’re after.’

Weighing in at up half a ton, the cattle create a rough and tusssocky appearance to the ground that is perfect for insects and other creatures that birds such as snipe and oystercatchers can feed their chicks on.

Elsewhere in the Trust’s network of nature reserves, the smaller Dexter cattle help to look after some of the more challenging reserves such as Swettenham meadows, a steep and damp site that is carpeted with wildflowers in summer, and the air filled with butterflies. The Hebridean sheep have been chosen especially for their un-fussy eating habitats, and are a vital tool when the Trust is looking to remove less desirable plants to allow native species to flourish.

Such has been the success of the project, the Trust now shares their expertise and the herds themselves with other leading conservation groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust and other county wildlife trusts including neighbouring Lancashire Wildlife Trust who have used the Longhorns to get their new flagship nature reserve at Brockholes in perfect condition for its grand opening in spring.

This combination of the Trust’s own grazing herds and working closely with other local farmers and landowners aims to bridge the missing links in the landscape – allowing wildlife of all shapes and sizes to move easily through the countryside and stand up to wider threats such as climate change. 

From field to plate

This rock-and-roll lifestyle touring around region with a winter stopover at the Trust’s Bickley Hall Farm makes for some fine tasting beef and lamb – and now we all have the chance to enjoy the hard work of the Longhorns and Hebridean sheep, thanks to local butcher Jim Stratton of Stockton and Stratton.

‘As a butcher, this unique opportunity to work in such a satisfying way with local livestock and conservation does not come along that often,’ Jim said.  

‘The benefits for everyone in this venture are numerous; first we are talking about a ‘field to plate’ distance of just a few miles and we also take the chance to allow the beef to hang for around 28 days to ensure that the superior flavour we pride ourselves on is there for the customer.

‘It’s also important to us that the beef has grazed on sweet pasture with no chemical usage – leading to an additional peace of mind and taste for us and those enjoying the beef and lamb. Our postal delivery service also means that wherever you are in the UK, you can enjoy the product and make a real difference for our countryside and its wildlife.’

Over sixty Trust supporters had an exclusive first taste of the Trust’s beef and lamb at a special event recently, with Leonie Collins-Read and her team from Country Cousine preparing the beef and lamb simply and traditionally and Jim Stratton and the Trust’s Director of Development Sarah Jones braving the heat of the kitchen to make the first cuts.

You can purchase Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s ‘Conservation Grazing’ beef and lamb direct from Stockton & Stratton via www.stocktonandstratton.co.uk, with every purchase supporting the work of the Trust.

To help Cheshire Wildlife Trust support the next phase of their Living Landscape scheme, you can become a member or make a donation online at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.co.uk

 

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