Environmental management – guidance

Grazing and pasture: sustainable management schemes

Schemes to minimise the impact of farming on natural habitat, and details of legislation and advice on sustainable grazing management.

Introduction

A range of schemes are available to help farmers minimise the impact of their farming practices on the natural habitat and its biodiversity.

This guide will help you to avoid the problems associated with poor grazing and unsuitable supplementary livestock feeding on land which is particularly vulnerable to damage. It provides information on legislation and agri-environment schemes affecting land management and on how to access government and other expert advice on best practice in sustainable grazing management.

Grazing and pasture and Cross Compliance

To qualify for full payment under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and other direct payments - eg the Environmental Stewardship schemes - you must meet all relevant Cross Compliance requirements. These requirements are split into two types:

  • Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)
  • requirements to keep your land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAECs)

GAEC 9 sets out how to prevent overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding.

Natural England is responsible for the assessment of both grazing and supplementary feeding controls under Cross Compliance legislation. They carry out this work on behalf of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

If Natural England suspect you have been overgrazing or that unsuitable supplementary feeding is occurring - or concerns have been reported to them - they will conduct an investigation to assess whether this is the case.

Overgrazing

If overgrazing is suspected, Natural England will conduct a vegetation survey using a nationally agreed method. If this site is found to be overgrazed, Natural England may recommend a limit on stock numbers on the site to RPA. RPA will then undertake regular checks to ensure that management prescriptions are being followed.

Unsuitable supplementary feeding

If Natural England suspect you of unsuitable supplementary feeding - or concerns are reported to them - they will visit you to check your livestock management and feeding practices.

If you are found to be conducting unsuitable supplementary feeding they will report to RPA who may request you to:

  • move a feed site
  • change feed types
  • stop feeding altogether on that site

Natural England advisers may, at the request of RPA, return to the site intermittently to ensure you are following management prescriptions.

The management prescriptions described above are issued by RPA on behalf of the Secretary of State. If a farmer is found to have deliberately breached a management prescription, RPA may withhold some or all of that farmer’s SPS or RDPE payments.

Find out more about Cross Compliance.

Overgrazing

Grazing too many animals on an area of land can restrict the growth, quality and diversity of natural and semi-natural vegetation - ie plant species that are typical of the area and grow there by self-seeding or spreading through their own means.

Unsuitable supplementary feeding can damage vegetation. It encourages farmers to keep more animals in an area than the land can support naturally. Feeding can lead to physical damage of the soil and vegetation through:

  • overgrazing and poaching due to concentration of livestock
  • localised enrichment through dunging
  • introduction of competitive species from hay or silage
  • transportation of extra feed

Under Cross Compliance measures, grazing and supplementary feeding controls are assessed by Natural England on behalf of the RPA. Farmers and land managers in agri-environment schemes that impose restrictions on supplementary feeding are required to contact Natural England prior to undertaking any activity that is not part of their agreement. Natural England may under extreme weather conditions announce a temporary relaxation of the rules.

The cross compliance measures form part of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and agri-environment schemes within the Rural Development Programme for England. If you receive direct payments under either of these schemes, you must avoid overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding by adopting sustainable grazing management techniques.

Overgrazing and supplementary feeding regulations do not apply to re-seeded or agriculturally improved land.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture)(England)(no.2) Regulations 2006

If you are re-seeding or improving uncultivated or semi-natural land this work may be covered by the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture)(no.2) Regulations 2006. The Regulations act to protect uncultivated land and semi-natural areas from being damaged by agricultural work.

Find out more about the EIA (Agriculture) regulations and applying to make changes to rural land.

The Regulations are included within Cross Compliance, GAEC of the Basic Payment Scheme. See standards of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC).

Overgrazing, along with moorland burning, particularly affects upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

For more information, see Cross Compliance: the basics or our related guide on the Environmental Stewardship: the basics.

Two particularly vulnerable habitats where grazing needs to be closely monitored are moorland and lowland heathland.

Moorland grazing

Most of the moorland, grassland and native woodlands in England are ‘grazed’ in some way. It is important that grazing is managed effectively to reduce any adverse impact on the environment.

Uplands (in an agricultural context) are areas where farming activity is constrained by climate, soils and topography. The uplands of England fall within the Less Favoured Areas (LFAs), and most are classed as Severely Disadvantaged Areas. Upland areas contain many plant and animal communities that are not found elsewhere, sometimes having been lost from lowland areas through more intensive agriculture. Traditionally, hill farmers graze sheep and cattle in the uplands.

Moorlands are the areas above the limit of agricultural enclosure and consist predominantly of semi-natural vegetation, or rock outcrops. Important moorland habitats include upland heathland, blanket bog, upland calcareous grassland, wet fens and flushes, and rock outcrops and scree.

There are also extensive areas of acid grassland, which generally are of lower wildlife value. These areas are often developed from heathland and bog habitats as a result of heavy grazing and other inappropriate management practices. Similar vegetation can occur in large enclosures on the moorland edge and together these areas of upland semi-natural vegetation fall within the Moorland Line. Farmers mainly use these areas for rough grazing.

When managing grazing livestock on upland moorland, you should consider:

  • appropriate stocking levels tailored to the productivity of the moorland vegetation
  • increased shepherding to utilise the extent of the grazing unit and reduce pressure on vulnerable areas
  • summer-only grazing
  • mixed grazing, including cattle in summer

Supplementary feeding

Supplementary feeding in the winter artificially inflates the number of livestock that a given area can support. You should avoid supplementary feeding wherever possible.

Wherever possible, you should remove livestock from the hill, or reduce numbers, for winter. Where supplementary feeding is required - eg in periods of severe weather - you should:

  • avoid long periods of supplementary feeding
  • where possible, feed on sites with little wildlife interest, eg acid grassland (‘white moor’) or bracken litter
  • choose sites over 100 metres from dwarf shrub heath, blanket mire, calcareous grassland or wet, flushed areas
  • not feed near a watercourse, or a known historic feature
  • rotate feed sites daily to minimise damage
  • scatter feed sites throughout the area to encourage livestock to ‘rake’ the ground
  • avoid the use of ring-feeders and troughs as they lead to localised overgrazing and poaching
  • use feeds such as hay, rather than concentrate - this should cause less grazing of vegetation reducing the amount of dwarf shrub grazed

Landowners may restrict the practice of supplementary feeding on moorland and common land.

You may find it necessary to give additional feed to ewes in the eight to ten weeks prior to lambing. You should seek specialist advice before taking a decision to give extra feed and, where possible, relocate the ewes to lower ground.

You can find more information about environmentally sustainable grazing in Natural England’s Upland Management Handbook.

Uplands Entry Level Stewardship

Much of the upland area in England is classified as an LFA. This classification allows farmers to claim support under schemes to assist beef and lamb production. Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) is one element of the Environmental Stewardship scheme which is open to all farmers and land managers in England. The scheme is designed to encourage environmental management. At the end of 2010, the Uplands Entry Level Stewardship replaces the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA).

Uplands ELS is open to all farmers with land in Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDAs), regardless of the size of the holding.

Uplands ELS provides hill farmers in SDAs with a range of options, including grazing and livestock management options where, for example, you can keep a set minimum of cattle on on upland grassland and moorland, but you must keep annual records including any permitted supplementary feeding provided.

Access a guide on how to look after your uplands with Environmental Stewardship.

Overgrazing can be a particular problem on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). SSSIs are areas that contain nationally important wildlife and geological or geomorphological features. These are considered to be some of the best examples of semi-natural habitat and geological features with associated wildlife species, so their conservation is essential. They also form part of the most spectacular and beautiful landscape areas in England. On uplands SSSIs, you must be particularly careful to prevent overgrazing.

You must also avoid moorland burning and where it must be carried out, you should do so under a burning plan based on best practice. Find out more about heather and grass burning: rules and applying for a licence.

Lowland heath grazing

Around 20 per cent of lowland heathland in the world is located in Britain. It is estimated that over 80 per cent of Britain’s lowland heath has disappeared since 1800. Around 17 per cent of this has occurred in the last 50 years.

Lowland heath is generally found at lower than 300 metres above sea level. It is characterised by nutrient-poor and acidic soils which support plants such as heathers and gorses, and trees such as Scots pine and birch. Lowland heath also supports:

  • rare bird populations - including the nightjar
  • reptiles, such as the sand lizard
  • invertebrates - for example, the silver-studded blue butterfly
  • rare plants, including marsh gentian in wet areas

Human activity - such as the grazing of domestic animals and harvesting of wood for fuel or bracken for bedding - has helped shape lowland heath and it is indispensable in preventing the natural succession towards woodland. The rapid decline of lowland heath was due to the afforestation of large areas, housing development and, above all, the abandonment of traditional management which kept short, open vegetation. Current conservation measures include removal of encroaching trees and conifer plantations, and extensive grazing.

You must manage grazing responsibly in order to avoid further loss of rare bird, reptile and plant species and should adapt your methods to the specific characteristics of each site. You should specifically consider:

  • the species that are present and their requirements - create a diverse vegetation structure by allowing grazing that includes short turf and taller areas of dwarf shrub
  • late summer/winter grazing can damage heather swards and encourage the spread of invasive plant species

Find out more about grazing management of lowland heathlands.

Grazing Advice Partnership

The Grazing Advice Partnership (GAP) is a partnership of farmers, land managers and conservation organisations committed to promoting the benefits of grazing in support of the natural environment and the country’s cultural heritage. GAP can provide you with information on grazing free-ranging animals on urban green spaces, small holdings, farms or open tracts of land.

GAP operates with four key investing partners:

  • Defence Estates
  • The National Trust
  • Natural England
  • Rare Breeds Survival Trust

GAP’s free online services for registered users include:

  • StockKeep - links stockholders seeking grazing to those who require livestock for grazing
  • Ready Reckoner - allows graziers to calculate their grazing system budgets easily
  • Habitat Composer - provides a ‘user-operated’ habitat design service for conservation graziers
  • Nibblers - a discussion forum open to anyone with an interest in conservation grazing

Find out more on the GAP website.

Horse pasture management

Good pasture management is vital in order to ensure that the wildlife value of old meadows and pastures is protected, and that horses are kept in a healthy and safe environment. Horse waste is a potential threat to the environment and human health, especially if it is stored or spread near water. One of the key elements of good pasture management is the correct storage and disposal of horse waste.

Horse manure is a controlled waste if discarded and/or mixed with other types of waste and subject to the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. If horse manure is used directly as a fertiliser on your farm or another farm, it is not considered waste and is not subject to the Regulations.

However, the Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) Regulations do set out restrictions for manure and slurry used as fertiliser or stored for use as a fertiliser. They apply alongside any restrictions that relate to any specific management agreement you have in place for that land. For example, the location of any horse manure that is stored, or land spread with waste or slurry, must:

  • be at least 10 metres from a watercourse
  • be at least 50 metres from a spring, well or borehole
  • not be on a very steep slope where run-off is a very high risk throughout the year

For more information on protecting water resources from nitrate pollution, see the guide: Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ).

Find out how to apply for an Environmental Permit.

The Environment Agency has produced pollution prevention guidance note for stables, kennels and catteries, which give information and advice on the safe and correct disposal of waste from these types of premises.

Surrey County Council has created a Horse Pasture Management Project for Surrey. It advises horse owners and keepers on how to maintain their paddocks in a way which promotes the welfare of their animals and the environment. Although the scheme is run for Surrey only, its principles are relevant to other areas.

Find information on Surrey County Council’s Horse Pasture Management Project.

Further information

Natural England EIA Helpline

0800 028 2140

Natural England Enquiries team

0300 060 3900

RPA Helpline

0345 603 7777