The 'eco warrior' herd of Dexter cattle helping to keep conservation areas in top condition

Howard Cohen pictured with the Dexter cattle
Howard Cohen pictured with the Dexter cattle
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Sprinkled around the leafy villages of East Keswick, Wike and Bardsey is a small group of four-legged eco warriors that have found their niche in conservation grazing and protecting wildlife habitat, not through farmers or farming people but due wholly to community involvement, proving that you don’t have to be a farmer to have cattle.

Howard Cohen has been an active member of the East Keswick Wildlife Trust for many years.

Its status came about in the early 1990s when residents who had become concerned over the loss of woodland and flower-rich pastures decided to do something about it.

The trust initially purchased the 35-acre Ox Close Wood from the Harewood estate through donations from all walks of life both locally and from wildlife organisations in Leeds and in subsequent years have purchased what is now known as East Keswick Nature Reserve at Keswick Marsh in the village; Frank Shire’s Quarry and Elliker Field and Woods.

These areas are all now grazed by Dexter cattle, the non-short legged variety of the breed.

Howard and his team, that runs to four, are responsible for the herd’s wellbeing, their purchase, maintenance and breeding. He admits quite freely they knew nothing about cattle when they started.

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“I’m from Moortown in Leeds originally,” says Howard. “There are no farmers in my family. I’ve never even had a dog, although thinking about it now I may have had a budgie, but that was it.

“I now find cattle and the whole idea of keeping them highly interesting. I really do like the animals, something I never thought I would.

“From no knowledge whatsoever and no background in farming or livestock our experience has developed and we have been fortunate to have had local farmers who have been very helpful with support, advice and loan of equipment when necessary.”

The Conservation Grazing Cooperative, as it is known today, is made up of four members with Howard, one of his best friends David Smith and two others, Nick Hazlewood, who lives in Leeds, and Adam Bridger, from Wood Hall, near Linton where the cattle also graze.

“East Keswick Wildlife Trust was established by David and his wife, Melanie, over 25 years ago. I have been a member of the trust for a long time and I’m the lead member of this little cattle grazing operation that we set up around six or seven years ago.

“We’d had Hebridean sheep previously, around 25 of them.

“The idea to take on cattle came about, like a lot of things, over a drink in the local pub, in our case The Old Star in East Keswick where the trust volunteers are affectionately known by the regulars as ‘tree huggers’. We meet there once a month.

“David is much more knowledgeable than me and had undertaken research on grazing.

He’d already explained the benefits to the land and environment being grazed and had found that the right sort of cattle, such as Dexters, Belted Galloways and Galloways are better than sheep, as sheep graze until there is virtually nothing left whereas cattle leave quite a nice depth on the grass, allowing for better regrowth.

“Our first thought, when considering conservation grazing cattle breeds, was Belted Galloways and we got it into our heads to buy those, but then when we saw their size we thought they might appear a bit intimidating for some of our trust members and volunteers.

“That’s when we saw the Dexters and purchased two from the York Rare Breeds Sale at York Auction Centre in Murton.

The Conservation Grazing Cooperative is a separate entity to East Keswick Wildlife Trust and as such is also funded separately, but it is connected, and wouldn’t have come about otherwise if David and I hadn’t been part of the trust.

“The Dexters are light on their feet, being a smaller breed, and are ideal for conservation grazing. They have a fantastic life, not just living on grass but beautiful wild meadows rich in nutrients and they look fabulously healthy.

“We currently have ten cows with five in-calf, one steer and a bull we have bred ourselves. We have also made some very good friends who have established Dexter herds like the lovely couple Hans and Sandra up in Bilsdale who have 150 Dexters.”

As word of mouth has got around Howard now receives offers of other land to graze in the villages of East Keswick, Wike and Bardsey.

“We graze on all of the trust’s reserves but over the years people have got to know about our cattle and the benefits they can bring to those who perhaps have a field or fields of their own.

“Sometimes that’s as simple as owners being fed up of using their sit and ride lawnmowers, but for many of them it is very pleasant having these placid, biddable animals to watch from the comfort of their homes.”

Having started purely purchasing stock to graze, the cooperative started breeding and began hiring in a bull when necessary.

“We are constantly trying to make everything sustainable and this time we have used a really good bull, Glenlivet EX90, who is a big ginger bull. Our current herd is all black, so we may have some ginger calves this year or a colour combining both ginger and black perhaps.

“We don’t scan, so we might end with five calves or we might end up with two.

“We calve in order to provide replacements to the herd as we find around a dozen cattle overall is about our capacity with the land we have currently available.

“Some years we will not put any of the cows into calf. Everything is discussed at regular meetings at my home in Collingham where we ensure our grazing plans and weekly rota for checking the herd is all in order.

“That’s one of the reasons why we needed four of us involved, to ensure it wasn’t too much for any one of us. It’s working very well.”