Ever been jolted out of bed by the sound of a noisy lawnmower on a Saturday morning? Residents of Havering, a borough in East London, don't have to worry about that anymore.
Havering's council recently decided to turn to cows instead of lawnmowers to keep parks and other green spaces neat and trim. The council estimates it can milk $500,000 of savings out of the budget over the next decade.
Roger Beecroft is the wildlife consultant in charge of the new grazing program. Once deployed, his herd of cattle helps manage the local meadows, which are home to many protected plant, insect, and bird species. He explains that cutting hay or grass with a machine creates an even and tidy cut. Cattle, on the other hoof, graze haphazardly, which creates patches within the meadows of different heights and densities. That slower process allows different grasses and wildflowers — including Lady’s Bedstraw, sneezewort, pepper saxifrage and pignut — to flourish.
According to Beecroft, traditional grazing in this way has declined over centuries. "It's not new," he says. "These are interesting meadows because they've been grazed in the past. But what's happened since is that they've been managed in other ways or not at all." But there's now a stampede of interest in the old ways. "Getting back to traditional grazing — in particular by using traditional breeds which have been selected to do well in these areas — is exactly what we've been doing and what many people are interested in now."
Beecroft uses Red Poll cows for the job. He says they tend to thrive in diverse environments, don't mind wet weather and don't have horns, so they’re ideal for grazing in places like public parks. "Around half the borough is made up of parks and green spaces, so we're always trying to stay at the forefront when it comes to using new ways to help improve biodiversity and protect our wildlife," say Havering Councillor Melvin Wallace, who helped spur the project.
"There are so many benefits," he says. "It will help combat the decline in the borough's butterflies and bees while also protecting wildlife that can sometimes become victims of lawnmowers, and also save money ... and every penny counts!"
Beecroft says there will always be critics of traditional grazing: "If I go look at a meadow with lots of wildflowers in it and some cattle grazing and people enjoying it, I think it's fantastic. Whereas other people look at a bit of grass and prefer it looking like a lawn, and they think that's fantastic. So it's a question of perception, really."
So far the grass munching experiment in Havering is going well. Most people Beecroft observes “are keen to know more and to see the animals. And the cattle are getting used to seeing people walking past, so they just carry on munching away at the grass. So they're all fitting together quite well."
The herd of Red Poll cows still has many months of munching and grazing ahead of them, but Beecroft says they can't steer clear of the butcher shop in the end: "They are slow-growing and eating a whole variety of grasses and herbs, so the meat quality is fantastic!"