How livestock grazing is benefiting the planet

Jersey cows in a field
‘Were I to stop grazing my 8-acre holding with Jersey cows, the pastures, meadows and hedgerows … would be overtaken by bracken and brambles.’ Photograph: Peter Cade/Getty Images

George Monbiot (The most damaging farm products? Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb, 16 August) cites a meta-analysis showing that “when livestock are removed from the land, the abundance and diversity of almost all groups of wild animals increases”. But the same study also “observed grazing having a positive effect on plant diversity” and found that “in some environments, continued grazing is a required management technique to support native biodiversity”.

Were I to stop grazing my 8-acre holding with Jersey cows, the pastures, meadows and hedgerows – which host well over 60 species of plants, a dozen kinds of butterfly, insects ranging from dung beetles to grasshoppers, and various birds, reptiles and mammals – would be overtaken by bracken and brambles. Over time, this would presumably succeed to woodland, but in west Dorset we are already blessed with abundant tree cover.

It is obvious to me, and to the ecologists who surveyed the holding, that a balance of open grazed and wooded land will host more biodiversity than a blanket of woodland, and I would suggest this applies to the country as a whole.
Simon Fairlie
Charmouth, Dorset

 George Monbiot and Henry Dimbleby (England must reduce meat intake to avoid climate breakdown, says food tsar, 16 August) find it inconceivable that meat production can be compatible with high biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The counter-example is one that was well known to our medieval ancestors: floodplain hay meadows. Because of their traditional management – haymaking and grazing the aftermath – these wildflower meadows are now hotspots of botanic diversity, and their deep-rooted perennial plants capture and store carbon in their soils more securely than forests, which are prone to disease and fire.

The cattle and sheep reared on these meadows are effectively carbon neutral, because the meadows provide sufficient food – and without the inputs of fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides used in most arable farming. In addition, the meadow soils are highly porous and so they buffer floods, capture silt and filter pollutants from floodwater entering rivers and aquifers.

Unfortunately, in the last 100 years we have destroyed most of these ancient meadows – only 4 sq miles remain in the UK. Thankfully, their value across a range of “ecosystem services” is becoming obvious to conservationists and farmers alike, and landscape-scale restoration projects are under way.
Kevan AC Martin
Long Mead local wildlife site, Swinford, Oxfordshire

 George Monbiot ignores findings that poor people in the global south would benefit nutritionally from a higher intake of animal-source foods, and derive other benefits – such as manure as fertiliser and draught power – from livestock. He also neglects the fact that large expanses of the global south are too dry for crop cultivation and are home to people with few opportunities beyond pastoralism.

How is this relevant to the UK food sector? Why should we not let other people get on with it while cutting our own meat consumption? First, when this country is able to rebuild its aid programme it will be important not to marginalise livestock keepers for guilt by association with the industrial livestock sector. Second, pastoralists need markets for meat. Current animal health regulations prevent the import of meat from all but a few African countries, but with political will and regulatory innovation this could change, and we could establish a mutually beneficial trade in meat from people and ecosystems that are best placed to supply it.
Prof John Morton
Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich


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