AN eight-year project has found that grazing moorland with traditional livestock and innovative low-cost techniques may be as profitable as conventional upland sheep and beef farming.

This is the conclusion of the recently published Graze the Moor project, which investigated the techniques on a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Exmoor National Park.

The project was a unique collaboration between The Molland Estate, Exmoor National Park Authority, the Heather Trust, Natural England, local land owners and farmers, and leading academics and conservation bodies.

With the government’s future Environmental Land Management Scheme due to be rolled out in 2024, the findings offer reassurance to upland farmers that scaling up delivery of environmental benefits and other ‘public goods’ is achievable without damaging the business.

This will be critical in National Parks, where traditional farming techniques are relied on to sustain and enhance the landscape.

Sarah Bryan, chief executive of Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “Graze the Moor has helped demonstrate how a grassroots approach involving all those who care about the moor can work to deliver meaningful results for the environment.

"This resonates with how farming subsidy is likely to work in the future and, in supporting these kinds of projects, we hope to bring that vision closer.”

An overarching aim of the project was to find a solution to the dramatic loss of grazed heather, which over the years is being replaced by gorse, bracken and Molinia grass, and the increase in diseases associated with sheep ticks.

In recent decades, these factors have contributed to many upland farmers turning to more intensive farming systems, leaving an uncertain future for this rare and iconic landscape.

Natural England granted an exemption from restrictions that limit the amount of time cattle can graze on the open moor, permitting the reinstatement of winter grazing.

Traditional hill breeds, such as Galloway cattle and Welsh mountain sheep, were selected for their hardiness to allow livestock to thrive on the moor year-round.

Deployed in this way, grazing livestock can play an important role in controlling invasive species, that are known to stifle biodiversity.

Grazing management was combined with other methods, such as cutting, herbicide sprays, controlled burning, bracken bruising and reseeding with heather.

A ‘snacker feeder’ was used to encourage movement of livestock and limit localised overgrazing, at the same time as providing some additional feed for livestock.

Steve Langdon, who farms on Molland moor with his son Richard at Luckworthy Farm, said: “The Galloway cattle have adapted well to the conditions of Molland Moor, and we feel we have improved the habitat up there.

"We hope the government sees this as a real need to promote the notion that moorland grazing is an asset and not a liability to hill farming, and so continuing to manage this special landscape.”