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To sheep or not to sheep... that is the question

Geltsdale, in Cumbria, has been run as an RSPB site since 2001; before then it was managed as a grouse moor. Today, it is still surrounded by moors carrying out traditional moorland management techniques. Interestingly, RSPB workers at Geltsdale have admitted that being surrounded by managed moorland is beneficial for the bird life at Geltsdale, as predation is less of an issue.

The reserve encompasses two hill farms – Geltsdale and Tarnhouse – but in recent years all sheep had been removed from the moors by the RSPB, to be replaced by very light ‘mixed grazing’, carried out by a small number of cattle and a handful of Exmoor ponies. The Rewilding Britain website talks about Geltsdale’s main adaptation in terms of ‘rewilding’ being this large reduction in sheep grazing. A no-fence system was also put into use on the cattle, meaning that through the use of electronically controlled collars, RSPB staff could control where the cattle grazed – without using fencing.


These collars are, in themselves, not without controversy. While they work by emitting a warning sound when an animal approaches their virtual boundary, the collar will follow this up by delivering an electric shock to the neck if the animal doesn’t turn around or change direction.

Dog trainers have been questioning how it is that the RSPB are willing to encourage the use of what are, essentially e-collars on livestock, but at the same time, dog owners and trainers are being discouraged from using the same technology and stimulus on dogs to protect sheep and other livestock from being attacked.


The RPSPB describe the action of the collar when livestock leave their area as an ‘electric non-harmful pulse’. But if the pulse is enough for an animal to know it has behaved as it shouldn’t, is there really a difference between that and the shock emitted by a dog collar?


Highland Cattle modelling a Nofence collar

Anyway, we digress. For the last few years, Geltsdale have depended on cattle and ponies to carry out grazing duties. Now, however, they have announced that instead of the cattle (strangely, there is no mention of cattle in their latest press release…) they have been trialling a ‘new and innovative conservation grazing method’. Sheep. Yes, that’s right. The same Herdwick sheep that have been grazing in the uplands since the 11thcentury.


The RSPB claim that the difference is that their sheep, like the cattle who appear to have disappeared, are wearing e-collars sorry, we meant no-fence collars, of course. The North Pennines National Landscape website explains how while there were what they describe as a “few initial teething problems” with their flock of 22 sheep, they “quickly” learnt to obey the collars. “Over the last seven days of March, the flock of sheep received 447 audio warnings and 62 pulses.” 62 pulses, on 22 sheep, over 7 days. Perhaps not such quick learners, after all.


A study from 2017, titled “The ability of ewes with lambs to learn a virtual fencing system” published by the International Journal of Animal Science also found that no-fence technology was far from ideal when it comes to sheep. In conclusion, it stated that “it is too challenging to ensure an efficient learning and hence, animal welfare cannot be secured…The Nofence prototype was unable to keep the sheep within the intended borders, and thus cannot replace physical fencing for sheep.


But the most interesting thing, perhaps, is how the RSPB have totally changed their tune at Geltsdale. Have they finally realised that, far from being useless “woolly maggots” as George Monbiot loves to call them, sheep can perform a vital role in the uplands, which benefits a whole host of other species – not least birds.

The previous Geltsdale grazers


Ian Coghill, author of Moorland Matters and former chairman of the GWCT, had the following to say about the situation:


“Not long ago, Geltsdale was a grouse moor with all the things you associate with grouse moors. They had vegetation managed by rotational cool burning. They had sheep wandering about, there were gamekeepers who controlled foxes, crows, stoats, and magpies, and they had lots and lots of ground nesting birds.”


“Since the RSPB has run the place, most of that has gone. The idea that creating little patches for birds to nest in by putting electric shock collars on sheep will turn the clock back is laughable. In living memory, the place is alive with ground nesting birds, and they fledged their chicks. Why not do what works on the grouse moors round about Geltsdale? They are still producing lots of fledged chicks, with not an electric shock collar insight. Funny, really.”


It will be interesting to see how this progresses. The change of tactic at Geltsdale is different from a) what has happened previously, but b) what happens at other RSPB reserves. At Dovestone, for example, all livestock have been fenced out. The RSPB are also encouraging their client, United Utilities, to remove sheep from the hillside. Are the RSPB then going to bring sheep back in exchange for further subsidies and payments?

A curlew nest in a lush pasture; not rank heather


Further, in the RSPB press release on the topic, they talk about how ground-nesting birds like Lapwing, Curlew and Skylark “like a good view of what’s around them so that they can look out for predators… A key problem in large areas of the uplands is that rush pastures, unless regularly grazed, can grow dense and deter these species from nesting.” They go on to explain that since the sheep have grazed the areas, “the areas where the birds prefer to nest are now in perfect condition for them”, and Curlew, Lapwing and Skylark have all been sighted nesting in the area.


Surely this then contravenes the RSPB rewilding strategy? The Rewilding Britain website talks about how, at Geltsdale, there has been a “reduction in grazing and heather cutting to increase vegetation diversity”. Is this policy of rewilding then flawed for many vulnerable, red-listed species? 


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