Silvopasture is a more-than feasible grazing option for sheep, according to Jim McAdam, an honorary professor at Queen’s University Belfast.

He spoke at the recent College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (CAFRE) Virtual Sheep Conference for 2022.

According to Prof. McAdam, the correct mix of pasture and trees will help extend grazing seasons, while also adding to the environmental and conservation value of land.

 He added:

“Sheep are totally suited to silvopastoral systems.

“Silvopasture also creates habitat diversity. In addition, tree root systems have the potential to absorb nutrients escaping below the grass.”

Turning to hill and upland grazing options for sheep, Prof. McAdam stressed the role played by the animals in developing ecosystems that are in perfect harmony with nature.

He explained:

“Stocking rates on uplands and bogs should reflect the feed available to sheep at all times.

“In the early spring months, ewes can graze the young shoots put up by heather plants at that time of the year.”

He added that keeping heather shrubs below 30cm in height provides nesting opportunity for many birds while also reducing the threat of upland fires later in the season.

“Grasses will become the major source of feed for sheep during the spring and summer months. As the seasons progress, sedges and even rushes can be grazed,” he further explained.

Stressing the need to retain an element of rush cover in upland areas, he said:

“They will provide shelter for young lambs and nesting opportunities for a number of birds.”

One of the key priorities to be achieved when putting sheep on to hill areas is the prevention of over grazing.

“If there are too many animals for the forage available, tracts of underlying soil will be exposed to the elements,” said the professor.

“Peats and other soil containing high levels of organic matter will lose very significant quantities of carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to direct sunlight.

“However, if a balanced grazing approach is taken, these soils have the capacity to sequester large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.”

Prof. McAdam concluded:

“All our upland areas represent unique ecosystems. Sheep are the very heart of these, playing a key role in managing the indigenous vegetation.

“In turn, this has a fundamental impact on water quality, biodiversity, carbon sequestration levels and the maintenance of the overall livestock.

“Society wants all these issues to be actively addressed by farmers. So it makes total sense for upland sheep producers to be supported accordingly from the public purse.”