A small group of red Luing cows is being herded down a quiet road in Orkney in northern Scotland. The hedgerows are full of plants such as umbels, shepherd's purse and eyebright. Above, a greater skua keeps an eye out for food, and swallows dive and swoop for insects.
It may look like just another day on a farm in Orkney, but today marks the beginning of a unique scheme aimed at saving some of Scotland's rarest birds. And it's the cows, of all things, that are the birds' saviours to be.
The scheme is the unlikely brainchild of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Its aim is simple-, to improve the diversity of the environment and so increase the number and variety of birds that live there by getting cows to eat the heather.
The seven cows are being put to work with local stockman Duncan Reid on 970 hectares of heather moorland. Their job is simple: to eat, walk on and crush the heather. But they won't be destroying the landscape, they'll be improving it, says Andy Knight, the RSPB's reserves manager for Orkney.
'Because of the cows, there will be more young plants,' he explains, 'including ragged robin, red campion and milkwort. That makes it better for insects and mammals. For the birds, it will be like living in a full larder rather than a half-empty one.
There'll be more food for them to eat than there is now,' he continues. That will help them to get through difficult times such as the wet summer and cold winter that we've just had.'
The RSPB's reserve at Birsay Moors in Orkney draws visitors from around the world to see birds such as meadow pipit, skylark, plover, curlew, stone chat and twite. It's also one of the few places in Britain where hen harriers live. There are only 400-600 pairs in the whole country and many of those live on Orkney.
'In five years' time, because of the cows, the numbers of birds - especially hen harriers - will have doubled,' Andy says. This is our legacy, to make sure that all of this stuff is here for people in the future.'
But he warns that without the cows, the future for some bird species in the area could be bleak. I've been in conservation for 25 years, and birds that were common [back when I started], such as corncrakes and skylarks, have now gone,' he says. 'Hen harriers could easily go, too. Things can disappear very quickly if they're not looked after. And once you've lost a bird, you can't get it back.'
The vast stretch of moorland dates back to Neolithic times. But since peat-cutting declined on the islands some 50 years ago, the heather has really taken hold. Today, it's the equivalent of a farming monoculture: not a very inviting place for birds to live.
To make matters worse, the uncared-for heather is now the target of moths and beetles. They've weakened the heather, and so reduced the numbers of insects and small mammals living there, which would have been food for the birds. So, although the landscape looks beautiful, the short-eared owl that we watch flapping its way across the moorland is having to work harder to find a meal.
This is where the cows come in. By eating the heather--which they're clearly very keen to do -and stamping it down with their large hooves, they'll help make way for other species. Common tormentil, devil's-bit scabious, heath spotted orchid and lousewort are all expected to thrive as a consequence of their chewing. These plants will, in turn, provide a fresh habitat for insects and, crucially, seeds for the birds to eat during the harsh winters.
The Luing cows that form the first herd on the moorland have been chosen for their placid nature. They normally live on a nearby organic farm run by Brian Ridland. Many areas of the farm are already set aside to provide food for birds in winter, when snow can lie on the ground for up to six weeks, and Brian sees lending the RSPB his cows as an extension of this. …