Cattle don’t have the best of it. To start off, they’re easily scared by birds. I once saw an entire herd of 35 cattle stampede because a devilishly devious duck surprised them by inexplicably flying out of a thicket. Then they have to live in the knowledge that for 99% of them, the only reason they exist is for the production of meat, milk and hides. On top of all this, they have to endure the slanderous comments of some ill-informed fisheries and land managers, who suggest cattle are detrimental to ecological diversity.
Now I should be clear on this: the following views are based upon the collation of over 500 independent studies into the effects of cattle, as well as my own research over the past three years.
Cattle are not inherently evil. They’re not even inadvertently evil. I’ll hit you with some facts to prove this:
- There are 10 million cattle in the UK but in the eight years prior to 2009 there had only been 18 deaths in total caused by cattle of all kinds. There are 62 million people in the UK and over the same period there were approximately 8,000 murders. Hence, per unit cow/person, you’re around 72 times more likely to be killed by a homo sapien than by a cow. And cows don’t even have pockets.
- Overgrazing can be detrimental to any ecosystem and this has been proven (Trimble and Mendel, 1995; Adler et al., 2001; Vera, 2001; O’Reagain et al., 2005). However low or moderate grazing can be beneficial, and this has been proven (Olff and Ritchie, 1998; Taddese and Saleem, 2002; Holechek et al., 2003; Hayashi et al., 2007). This is in agreement with an ecological theorem known as the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (Grime, 1973)
- Cattle don’t like buttercups. The Ranunculus genus, from which the meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) and the common water-crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) come, are poisonous to cattle (Long, 1924; Clapham et al., 1957; Mabberly, 2008)
So there you have it. The truth of the matter is that cattle aren’t evil. That’s not to say they can’t do naughty things. If you put more cattle in a field than that field can handle, there will be ecological and geomorphic consequences: river bank destabilization; allochthonous nutrient loading from faeces and urine; soil erosion; increased surface runoff.
Even if you put a sustainable number of cattle in your field, specific biota, such as Atlantic salmon, may suffer very slightly from fine sediment inputs and reduce in-stream oxygen levels. On the plus side you’ll have increased habitat heterogeneity that will attract a wider range of species, and improve biodiversity.
That’s your choice. Exclude cattle entirely and help support the £300 million per year UK sports fishing industry, or let cattle in and optimise ecological diversity. There may be a middle ground but I can’t tell you EVERYTHING I’ve found out during my PhD – there’d be nothing left! Whatever you do, don’t take it out on the cattle; it’s not their fault.