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8 Oct 2020

Conservation grazing in action at Culloden Battlefield

Written by Jacky Brookes
A woman is feeding hay to two Highland cows in the middle of a field.
Catriona McIntosh feeding the Highland cows at Culloden
Our frontline bovine unit of conservation grazers are helping to keep the battlefield looking like it should. Caring for them during lockdown was the responsibility of Team Culloden – when a steep (and highly successful) learning curve took place!

Culloden Battlefield is the site of one of the most pivotal moments in Scotland’s history, where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to a tragic and brutal end. It’s a place of great cultural significance and therefore it’s essential that the Trust protects it now, and for future generations. A key part of this lies with the cattle and the conservation grazing we have introduced here.

When lockdown was announced, we had to close the visitor centre and museum at Culloden. But essential work still continued on the battlefield, where a variety of livestock, including goats, Highland ponies and Highland cows, graze all year round. They’re an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to ensure scrub tree growth doesn’t encroach onto the battlefield. During lockdown a new part of day-to-day life developed, when Team Culloden took on the daily responsibility of caring for the cattle.

Along with gaining a whole new set of skills – feeding, walking, exercising and generally getting to work with the cattle – the expertise of the team has grown, as well as their love for these bovine beauties!

And Culloden’s grazers are doing exactly what the team want them to do – eating the birch, willow and rowan scrub and helping keep the battlefield look like it should. Relying on our key frontline bovine grazing unit means that the vegetation growth is controlled while keeping the use of machinery and chemicals to a minimum.

Throughout the pandemic, Catriona McIntosh, our Visitor Services Supervisor (Engagement) at Culloden, was given responsibility for our livestock. As well as feeding them, she also had to ensure the security of the pens and the wider battlefield. Catriona has also begun halter training with some of the animals so they can meet visitors on the battlefield, who love to hear about these ancient breeds of cattle and the fantastic conservation job they do.

A Highland cow and a white and black cow are walking through some woodland.

Catriona says that it’s important there’s a strong working relationship with all the animals who take part in our conservation grazing. She explains: ‘A key part of the relationship is being able to safely move the cattle around the site – they’re big beasties and we need to make sure we’re being as responsible as we can be. To do this we practise moving them and taking them on walks. All of this is done within their own compartments or grazing areas and goes hand in hand with their halter/collar training.

‘They’re walked around 200 metres from the main compartment gate to the goat compartment. They’re then rewarded with 4+ hours of grazing with the goats – known affectionately by the team as a goat play date! The cattle normally graze on birch and rowan and they really enjoy the rough grazing on the grass with the goats. The goats love spending time with them too.

‘The walks will become really important in the winter when we move them to their over-wintering paddock by the visitor centre.’

A Highland cow standing in a green field, with another Highland cow in the background.

An added bonus for the cattle in winter is hay from nearby Trust property Brodie Castle. During lockdown the gardening team there left their wider areas of grass to grow long It was then cut and made into haylage, which has been brought across to Culloden for winter feed.

Earlier this year, in an exciting new first for Culloden, we entered the cattle into the first-ever virtual Shetland Cattle Show in August 2020. New member to the herd, Ailsa, came 5th place in the ‘heifer not in calf’ category. A great result for our first attempt at a show!

A black and white cow in a field walking towards the camera.
Ailsa, who took part in the virtual Shetland Cattle Show

But it’s not just the cows that have been working hard. The Culloden goat herd gang will be heading out west soon as their job is done in their current location – clearing the scrub in the middle of the battlefield. We now need our crack troop of goats to get control of the area beyond the Jacobite line, where the scrub is reaching small tree height. The goats are currently also enjoying some seasonal fruit in their feed, courtesy of some of our team who have kindly donated their home-grown apples. These are a really special treat for them and they’re super excited to have them.

Last year was phenomenal for Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, when we welcomed the highest number of visitors, our learning team engaged with more people than ever, and our shop was shortlisted for an international award! We were looking forward to beating these records this year, but coronavirus put a dramatic stop to all our plans.

The visitor centre reopened in August and it’s been so nice to welcome people back to Culloden. And the Culloden livestock troop are very happy, healthy and looking forward to meeting visitors too!

A Highland cow with large horns standing in field with long grass.

We’re grateful to the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA for their generous ongoing support of our Culloden livestock.

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