Cattle on the Sudbury Common Lands and Riverside: a year of management
Back by popular request for November’s meeting was Adrian Walters, Ranger of the Sudbury Common Lands – more popularly known as the water meadows. This slide-talk focused on the cattle, their history, role, management and place in the ecology of the meadows. They are not simply living lawn mowers. Their place could not be taken by a mechanical grass cutter. They are integral to maintaining the meadows as we know them. Grazing prevents the land from becoming scrubland with dominant plants taking over and offering little for wildlife. Its conservation value is nil. Cattle have been grazing here since the 12th century and probably before.
A big problem today is that most people are so divorced from the seasons, farming, livestock and the countryside that they are ignorant of the fact that the rural landscape has to be maintained throughout the year with each season having its particular work, e.g. hedge laying, ditch draining, fence repairing, coppicing, pollarding the willows, etc. Cattle welfare is all important: treating injuries and disease or problems early is vital and that is a summer job when flies are numerous and each animal has to be sprayed to deter the pests. (Sometimes, it seems as though they do not even want to know despite Adrian’s attempts to explain why certain things are done and why the meadows cannot simply be left to Nature.)
South Devon cattle are turned out on the Common Lands in late April or May. Cows with calves born in the winter in the shelter of farm barns and pens and which have been dis-budded, ear-tagged and castrated, are turned out on those meadows to which the public have no access to grow up in peace under the protection of their mothers. Come autumn, after weaning, it’s back to the farm to allow the grasslands to recover and time for the cows to become pregnant again, by Frank the bull. Come spring, the yearlings (previous year’s calves) are turned out on the ‘public’ meadows to mature. Then again the following year. However, because of BSE in the mid 1990s, cattle now have to be slaughtered before the age of 30 months if they are to be part of the human food chain. Out of a total of about 120 animals, probably only 20 or so will end up on the table each year.
Sudbury is almost unique in having these meadows on the edge of the town. Somehow they have escaped being drained, built on, ‘developed’ or otherwise ruined or obliterated. But they would not be as we see them were it not for the annual grazing cycle by cattle. Long may they remain so.