For those unfamiliar with crofting communities, a croft is a small, usually tenanted farm, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, similar in size to a smallholding.
In Shetland the land is predominantely wet moorland with a high proportion of heather, which is easily churned by livestock. In addition to the in-bye land (better ground close to the house which could be planted or cut for hay), there would be a right to use common grazing and peat banks for fuel.
In the past, the Shetland men would often be working away from home fishing, whaling or employed in the merchant navy, while the women worked the crofts. Traditionally known as the "The House Cow", the Shetland cow played an essential role in the life of the crofting family, who would survive on milk, potatoes and flour.
Many crofts would have two cows, one in calf and one in milk, to ensure continuity of the vital milk supply. Calves would usually be reared and sold to produce some income, but aged cows, often well into their twenties, would be slaughtered for meat.
In those days, before refrigeration, several families would share this cow, virtually every part being used, and a large proportion of the beef would be salted. The death of a cow in those times was a tragedy which could mean starvation to the family who owned it. The cow was housed at night and outside during the day except in extreme weather, and fed on home produced forage.
After a bad harvest the cow would often suffer from severe malnutrition, (as would the family), but would rapidly recover and put on condition when put on to the spring grass.
The Shetland cow was ideally suited to the crofting lifestyle because of its ability to thrive under adverse conditions. Her small light-boned frame made it more suitable than heavier breeds for wet, easily poached grazing. She was also very long-lived.
The Importance of Grazing
- Grazing by livestock creates pastures which are rich in biodiveristy.
- Extensive grazing at low stocking rates by suckler beef herds can create pastures with a high diversity of birds, plants and invertebrates.
- Cattle grazing can also maintain a diverse vegetation structure with a mosaic of short swards, tall vegetation, tussocks and limited areas of poaching.
- Cattle grazing complements sheep grazing and together they can be used to good effect to manage most habitats such as species-rich grassland, wetland, coastal heath and marginal moorland.
- Careful grazing management will enhance the wildlife value of sensitive landscapes.
- The wide muzzles of cattle cannot graze selectively like sheep, nor can they crop pastures so closely, thereby, protecting the wide range of ground hugging wild flowers and herbs such as wild thyme, violets, orchids, primroses, self heal and bird's foot trefoil.
- Cattle do an important job in breaking up a mat of dead vegetation creating the opportunity for colonisation by wild flowers.
- Native cattle are less likely to damage the soft ground due to the fact that they are lighter, with broad hooves.
Indirect Impacts of Cattle
- Cattle maintain a mixed and varied land use.
- Mixed crop growing of hay and silage as winter feed for cattle provides better habitat for birds and plants.
- Uncut grass provides better cover for young birds.
- Dung as a natural fertiliser returns nutrients to grazed land, providing crofters in times past with their main source of fertiliser, in order to improve their small plots of land.
- Insects found in dung are an important source of food for birds such as curlew, whimbrel, oystercatcher, snipe, starling and pipits.