To graze or not to graze? Sheep, voles, forestry and nature conservation in the British uplands.
The British uplands are internationally important for their unique plant and bird communities. They have considerable economic, nature conservation, landscape, aesthetic and tourism-related value and as a result are under a variety of different pressures, most notably from sheep farming, shooting interests, commercial forestry and conservation interests. In order to optimize biodiversity in the uplands, the challenge is to find how to balance the different land-use pressures. One key upland species that is potentially affected by livestock grazing, and is of considerable interest to both foresters and nature conservationists, is the field vole Microtus agrestis. Relaxation of livestock grazing can result in an increase in vole numbers. This in turn could have both positive and negative implications for biodiversity as (i) field voles are a major source of prey for other species and (ii) they are a cause of damage to newly planted trees and potentially damaging in areas of native woodland regeneration. A replicated, randomized block experiment, consisting of six replicates of four livestock grazing treatments, was established in 2003 (with baseline data collected in 2002). This enabled us to examine the effects of livestock grazing on field vole abundance. We have demonstrated experimentally for the first time that livestock grazing pressure affects the abundance of field voles (as measured by a vole sign index) in the uplands. In the first year of the experiment, immediate treatment effects were detectable, with a lower abundance of voles in the conventionally grazed treatment compared with those in the ungrazed treatment, and with intermediate vole abundances in the lightly grazed treatments. The significant treatment effects became more apparent in 2004, with a higher abundance of voles in the extensively grazed mixed treatment (i.e. sheep and cattle) than in the extensively grazed treatment that contained only sheep. Synthesis and applications. In order to maximize biodiversity in the uplands, our results suggest that low intensity livestock grazing, used in a novel ways, could be a useful management tool to reduce vole abundance (and hence subsequent tree damage) compared with excluding livestock from young plantations completely. Furthermore, vole abundance would be higher at low grazing intensity compared with conventional stocking rates, thus still providing food for raptors and other vole-eating vertebrates. Indeed, low-intensity sheep and mixed livestock grazing might improve prey availability as a direct consequence of increased heterogeneity in vegetation structure. Our results suggest that it may be possible to maintain the open character of moorland habitats, and benefit key upland species generally, by reducing sheep grazing pressure and introducing low-intensity mixed livestock grazing throughout the uplands.