Cattle to help recovery of Northern Ireland’s fire-hit Mourne Mountains

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Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

A small herd of traditional cattle will be helping to bring wildlife back to Northern Ireland’s highest peaks following a devastating fire two years ago.

In April 2021, flames ravaged 720 acres (250ha) of land in the Mourne Mountains, including part of the country’s highest peak, Slieve Donard, in what was to be one of the biggest fires of its kind recorded in Northern Ireland.

An area once brimming with flora and fauna was scorched, vegetation destroyed, and species diversity reduced.

Since then, the National Trust, which cares for much of the area, has been trialling different methods to rejuvenate the land and bring it back to full health for the plants and animals that live there. The area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to beloved animals including the Irish hare, and rare plants like the pale butterwort and starry saxifrage. 

Now, the charity is working in partnership with its tenant farmer to add a herd of Luing cattle to its restoration efforts. The herd of six cows will trample bracken and chomp through the dominant Purple moor-grass that has sprung up since the fire, providing the space for native plants and heather to return, and creating habitat for newts, lizards, ground-nesting birds and hares.

The animals, which are looked after by a tenant farmer, will wear special collars with GPS tracking which allows ‘virtual fences’ to be created. This means grazing can be targeted at particular areas of the mountains without the need for intrusive fences, while maintaining high levels of animal welfare. 

Kevin Duncan, Land Use and Farming Adviser at the National Trust in Northern Ireland said: “We’re delighted to bring this innovative No Fence technology to the Mournes as it has been shown to be an effective tool to deliver targeted conservation grazing management. The project is a fantastic example of working to deliver a natural solution through the reintroduction of traditional cattle and use of technology to showcase that farming has a vital role to play in tackling the nature and climate crisis.

“Our farmer has spent a long time researching a suitable breed of animal for the job, one which is hardy enough to deliver conservation grazing in this upland environment whilst still producing good beef calves for the market. The hardy Luing cow was the breed of choice, which is adept to conservation grazing in the uplands due to their highland heritage and has a docile nature. This traditional breed of cattle isn’t a fussy browser and will chomp down rank grasses like Purple moor-grass, unlike sheep which are a more selective grazer. Cattle would have been much more common on uplands in days gone-by and both cattle and sheep grazing at the right intensity are vital to ensuring a landscape rich in wildlife.”

The cows have been carefully trained to respond to the collars before their introduction to get used to them – and they have also been supervised by a vet to ensure no undue stress is caused. The collars work by keeping the animals in a pre-defined virtual grazing paddock and if the animal goes close to the boundary, the collar plays audio warning signals to deter it from crossing.

Cows are fast learners, but should they persist in straying close to the boundary, the audio warning will be followed by a slight electrical pulse (much less than the traditional electric fences used to contain livestock) – but, in practice, the audio warning is enough to keep the cows where we need them for required grazing.

Kevin added, “The virtual grazing paddocks are created using a mapping app which then communicates with the collar on the animal. The paddocks will be targeted in areas where Purple moor-grass is dominating and the cattle will be brought first to a grazing paddock near Thomas Quarry where we already have a livestock handling facility.”

Patrick Doran, Wildfire Recovery Ranger at the National Trust will monitor the success of the cattle grazing and said: “It is exciting to see the return of cattle to the Mournes, it will be particularly interesting to see how their grazing will aid in the recovery of the habitats damaged by the 2021 wildfire. We hope the cattle will help reduce the cover of purple moor-grass in the area, which is inhibiting the recovery of the habitat, reducing the cover of this species will allow heather to recover. These changes will be determined by ongoing monitoring carried out across the site.”

John Maginn, Farmer said: “The collars have been shown to be a great example of where we can use advancing technologies to aid day-to-day livestock management, increasing animal husbandry by being able to monitor livestock virtually whilst aiding the cattle to deliver the required conservation management in this ionic landscape. Initial training of the cattle has shown them to be fast learners of the audio signals. This has given me great confidence in trialling this innovative technology and I am very encouraged for the wider positive implications it could have for the farming sector to aid grazing management.”

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