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Comparative diet selection by cattle and sheep grazing two contrasting heathland communities

Fraser, M.D., Theobald, V.J., Griffiths, J.B., Morris, S.M., Moorby, J.M.
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2009 v.129 no.1-3 pp. 182-192
cattle, sheep, grazing, feeding preferences, shrublands, plant communities, botanical composition, sward, Calluna vulgaris, vegetation cover, feces, sheep breeds, cattle breeds, seasonal variation, land management, environmental management, Wales
In the UK the funding mechanism for moorland restoration is being implemented primarily through agri-environment schemes, yet to date remarkably few comparative grazing studies with domesticated livestock have been conducted on this type of vegetation community. In this experiment the diet composition of four groups of animals grazing heathland swards with low (8%) and high (61%) percentages of cover of Calluna vulgaris was estimated from faeces profiles of n-alkanes and long-chain fatty alcohols. Two breeds of sheep (Welsh Mountain (WM) and Scottish Blackface (SBF)), and two breeds of cattle (Welsh Black (WB) and Continental cross (CX)) grazed the experimental sites during two separate 14-day sampling sessions, in July and September respectively. Both species were selective feeders, consuming grasses (selectivity indices 0.20-1.0) in preference to dwarf shrubs (selectivity indices 0.20-1.0), but there were significant differences in the proportions of various plant groups within the diets. Although the sheep diets contained significantly more C. vulgaris, the quantities consumed were small (<10% of the diet), even on the High site, reflecting the biomass of the graminoid species present, and hence availability of preferred items. The SBF sheep were the only animal type to increase consumption of C. vulgaris later in the season. There were a number of significant differences in the composition of the diets selected by the two hill breeds of sheep used in the study, with the SBF sheep recorded as consuming more C. vulgaris. These results imply that through choice of breed land managers may be able to meet environmental goals more effectively without compromising returns from conventional production systems. In contrast, the overall diet composition of the two breed types of cattle was similar. This indicates that commercial breeds have the potential to deliver the types of environmental benefits associated with grazing of traditional breeds.