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GPS tracked cows on Birsay Moors

Last modified: 21 October 2011

Birsay Cattle - DO NOT USE

Luing cattle with Duncan on Birsay Moors

Image: Raymond Besant

Birsay Moors are the subject of an innovative new land management trial being run by RSPB Scotland. In order to inject more diversity into the hill and rejuvenate ageing heather stands a herd of Luing cattle, that are being tracked by GPS, have been drafted in to graze 600 ha of the moors.

Rather than being fenced in, unusually, these cows are being shepherded by local stockman Duncan Reid from Sandwick who guides the animals to areas that need to be grazed while avoiding more sensitive sites. To help with health and safety and ecological assessment, Duncan carries a GPS tracker and one cow has been fitted with a GPS collar the data from which will be downloaded at the end of three months.

Orkney Reserves Manager, Andy Knight, commented: “We know that the Birsay Moors are in need of some low impact management, but the main aim is to see if this kind of cow-herding approach is workable in this 600ha section of Birsay Moors with a view to running up to thirty hefted cows sometime in the future without the need for putting in new fences. This short trial will hopefully be enough to highlight any problems, limitations and benefits, allowing us to weigh them up against stockman costs. The use of GPS software brings an interesting element to the trial - we'll know where Duncan is all the time, but we won’t know what the cows have been up to until the end of the three months!”

Duncan, who is working under a labour services agreement between RSPB Scotland and the Orkney Business Ring said: “I was already a volunteer with the RSPB and I was pleased when the opportunity arose to become more involved with their work on Orkney. Being out on Birsay Moors is a great way to spend the working day. I enjoy working with the cows and they have only given me the run-around once so far!”. 

The section of the Birsay Moors that the cows are on has been without active management for many years, and, without native large herbivores (like deer) in Orkney the heath has developed quite a uniform physical and age structure. Grazing cattle, even at very low densities, can help to address this by trampling the aging heather, opening up herb-rich flushes and allowing young plants to re-establish. This in turn provides suitable for a greater variety and concentration of insects and small mammals which in turn works its way up the food chain as a food source for many moorland bird species, including the hen harrier and short-eared owl.

Over the duration of the three month trial, which began in August, six to ten Luing cows will graze the moor for a total of thirty hill days. When not on the moors the cattle are kept in an adjacent grass field. Following completion of the trial the results will be analysed by RSPB Scotland staff. As a breed Luings are particularly suited to grazing these kinds of habitats and it helps Duncan that they are naturally good natured and easy to work with.

The cattle are provided by local farmers Brian and Fiona Ridland of Aikerness Farm who supply the cattle to the RSPB in return for grazing land.  “We are pleased to help by providing Luing cows as they are ideally suited to this environment and their docile nature is excellent for the management.” 

Due to the size and nature of Birsay Moors, the cattle cannot be viewed easily by the public, but on the right day can be seen from the Burgar Hill hide. However, stunning pictures of them at work can be seen on the Orkney page blog at http://www.rspb.org.uk/

RSPB Scotland’s work on Orkney is supported by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)  Orkney Islands Council (OIC) and VisitOrkney

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