Demands for a certain type of product has had a dramatic impact on the herd profiles of suckler operations in hill farming areas, according to Fergal Monaghan.

The specialist commonage advisor says that ever since the BSE crisis the demand has been for younger beef, with animals slaughtered at 30 months or younger.

“Those involved in finishing animals have quite naturally responded to this by demanding calves that can be finished by the age demanded by processors and big retail chains.”

All of this, he said, mitigates against traditional breeds and encourages the increasing dominance of continental beef breeds and demands calves be sold before the first winter.

“In the past many of these farmers would have kept animals for two winters, this pattern is a thing of the past. The demand for younger beef and the price penalties put on older stock means that calves are sold before the first winter.”

A knock on effect of this, he said, is that farmers with commonage may find passing the utilisation test difficult if Purple Moor Grass is not kept under control.

“Passing the utilisation test is a particular problem in situations where past management has led to the dominance of a single plant species. In spite of the focus on it during the debate on the future of commonages heather is not the real problem.

“This deciduous grass grows rapidly in early summer but its palatability for stock is limited. Sheep will only eat it if fenced in and deprived of alternatives, cattle and horses will graze on it in early summer but by August it has gone over and is largely avoided by stock if alternatives are present.”

If large bovines are absent in early summer, he said, their introduction to the commonage is too late in the season for Molinia to be utilised.

“When this occurs cattle may concentrate on other parts of the site and largely avoid the wet heaths where Moloinia dominates. This creates a very real risk that such areas could be deemed to ineligible for payments due to the absence of agricultural activity.

“In short they fail the utilisation test. In many cases a finding of ineligibility like this and the ensuing penalties could destabilise the finances of the entire farm.”