Farmers and conservationists don't always see eye-to-eye. But a team of researchers in the U.K. is looking at how raising animals on disappearing natural grasslands might help conserve both the land and the farmers.

Moderate grazing can actually be a good thing for some native grasslands—from the fen to the moor—which, when left alone, can become unusable woody scrub, according to Henry Buller, a geography professor at the University of Essex. In the past, farmers have abandoned many of these parcels in favor of more productive hay-sown fields or confined, grain-fed operations to fatten more animals faster. But with the right marketing, animals raised on natural pastures—teaming with an array of native plant species—can bring in top dollar (or pound, as it were).

"A lot of farmers are not particularly good at selling meat because that's not their job," says Buller, who recently conducted research into the potential environmental and biz benefits of raising animals on natural grasslands.

He notes that consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from—and how it's raised. That means, he says, that farmers can profit from, say, cattle raised on a healthy heath if the beef is marketed properly.

"People are saying these days that there are all sorts of advantages to grazing animals on natural pastures," says Buller. So he and a team of other researchers set out to determine whether they're right by studying more than 100 U.K. farms from pasture to packaging (about three-quarters of which grazed their animals on "natural" grasslands—rather than fields planted for increased productivity or grain-fed).

Their findings, released recently by the Economic and Social Research Council: even though overall productivity on these more rugged pastures is lower than conventional, planted fields, farmers could still make a profit grazing on these wild lands, given that the public appears willing to pay more for local, grass-fed chops. Another plus, Buller says: tests show such meat may be tastier and healthier. (Lamb, for instance, raised on biodiverse natural grasslands had higher levels of vitamin E and some fatty acids, which have been linked to improved heart health.)

"Those results do translate to the U.S. as well," says Matt Sanderson, a research agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who found the study interesting and promising for farmers eager to take advantage of niche marketing opportunities.

Conservationists and ranchers/farmers often clash, but, Buller says, this is something that could make both sides happy. Conservation is not just "the idea of restricting or stopping a thing," he says. "We ought to have a more negotiated approach to say that certain types of farming are actually helping the environment." 

Image courtesy of Martin Pettitt via Flickr