How can Humans Eat Grass?

Every summer I mark GCSE Biology examinations, and every year I end up really depressed when I mark the agriculture or food question.  In a nutshell, the average British 16 year old – if what they write in this national examination is to be believed – has learnt that livestock farming has nothing good to offer society.  According to the 1500 or so exams I have read in the last three years, the majority of British 16 year olds believe that

  • farmers rear animals indoors because they enjoy (or at best don’t care) making animals unhappy,
  • everyone, human and livestock, would be better off if we were all vegetarian because then food would not be wasted on animals:  humans could eat animal food and that would be much more efficient,
  • possibly best of all would be if we grew all our protein in large silos in the form of fungus (this is what makes Quorn) because it protects farmland and has a much higher protein content than meat.

As is so often the case, there are grains of truth in all these which have been grotesquely distorted.  Some may be put down to adolescent inattention or intellectual incapacity, but strikingly similar arguments crop up in batches and frequently, which implies that the teacher has at best a poor understanding of the topic and at worst an ‘agenda’.

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

Aberdeen Angus in the water meadow, Lleyn sheep on the hill

This photograph would not be possible in a society where no one ate meat.  I have read exam scripts in which it appears young people are being encouraged to think that if no one ate meat then farm animals would be left to live to a ripe old age in bucolic bliss.  They are also being given the impression that all livestock are fed entirely on grains which could also feed humans.  This may be true of the great stockyards of the United States, but in this country a significant part of the nutrient intake of cows and sheep is grass.

Feeding livestock with grass is a way of using land which could not be used for anything else.  The water meadow could flood.  The hill in the background is rather steep.  So both would probably be unsuitable for arable crops.  And even arable fields periodically need a rest:  a grass ley provides this as part of a crop rotation.

There is a ‘grain’ of truth in the argument that feeding grain to livestock is not the most energy-efficient (in terms of calorific content) way of growing food.  Dairy cattle in particular need extra inputs to enable them to make the many litres of milk that they produce each day.  Maybe the best compromise would be to keep using these excellent converters of grass into human food, but moderate our meat and dairy product intake whilst doing a better job of consuming the ‘5 a day’ of fruit and veg!

Crafting a Hedge: What is a Laid Hedge?

Click here for the National Hedgelaying Society

In the last post Edward mentioned laying hedges.  Hedgelaying was the primary form of hedge management until the last war.  Sometimes on walks you might see evidence of ancient laid hedges.  This sycamore was laid many decades ago:  that is why its trunk is horizontal.  But you can also see why farmers laid hedges:  as long as the trunk is not cut all the way through, it will heal and then send up many new vertical shoots.  In this way the hedge slowly grows into a dense mesh.

old laid hedge WalesThere are many reasons why this form of hedge is good for both livestock and wildlife.  If it is left unmanaged, a hedgerow will continue to grow upwards and outwards and will eventually become a line of trees. A row of tree trunks does not provide shelter like a hedge, and neither does a wire fence.  As the bushes in the hedge grow upwards, it become possible for cattle and sheep to make gaps or push through:  that is what sadly happened to the young lamb that was killed on the A352 a few weeks ago.

Hedges are an important haven for wildlife. They give pleasure to humans as well, not only because they look lovely but also they divide up the landscape into the beautiful  patchwork characteristic of Albion.

brompton_hedgelaying_tA well-laid Shropshire hedge  A well-managed hedgerow is thick and bushy, an impenetrable barrier to sheep and cattle and a haven for wildlife.  When a hedge is laid, the cut stems are bent over at an angle.  In order to prevent the sheep pushing through, stakes driven into the hedge.  Binding along the top makes the fence strong to resist the weight of cattle. Laying the hedge also tidies it up and encourages the shrubs to regenerate keeping the hedge bushy and healthy. A laid hedge after a yearovergrown laid hedge

Once a hedge has been laid regular trimming will keep it in good order for up to 50 years when it may be appropriate to lay the hedge again, or even coppice it.