Livestock Grazing Hinders the Regrowth of Rainforests in the UK and Ireland
Some years ago, the president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales wrote a response to a BBC documentary that had criticised the meat industry’s environmental impact. In the response, she argued that British farmers do not clear rainforests to produce beef and lamb, and that British meat is not a product of deforestation in the Amazon.
Despite the belief held by many, the statement that the UK and Ireland’s livestock production is not associated with rainforests is not entirely accurate. This is due to the fact that imported soybeans are often used to feed chickens, pigs, and cows, which are raised for meat production. Brazil, the largest soybean exporter globally, cultivates a significant portion of soybeans on deforested land.
Contrary to popular belief, the UK and Ireland are home to rainforests known as Celtic or Atlantic rainforests. These temperate forests are being threatened by grazing livestock, especially deer and sheep. This might come as a surprise to many people.
The rainforests in the UK and Ireland are now only a small and scattered area. According to the Woodland Trust, they have been in a state of decline for a long time due to clearances, overgrazing, and conversion to other uses.
On Twitter, there’s debate about the absence of trees in many of Britain’s National Parks being “natural,” but that’s a misconception. As soon as grazing is prevented and fences are erected, trees and vegetation can make a swift comeback.
In order to safeguard nature, we must limit any additional deforestation, while also making an effort to revive what has been destroyed. While we tend to see current tree removal as deforestation, we should also consider actions that prevent forests from naturally regenerating as such.
Grazing livestock have huge land footprints
A considerable amount of land in the UK and Ireland that could support temperate rainforests is instead utilized for grass-fed cows and sheep, as these areas aren’t suitable for arable crops that prefer drier conditions. Nonetheless, even if these rainforest zones were used for other crops instead of livestock grazing, the latter would still pose an indirect threat due to their significant land usage. To obtain 100g of protein from lamb, you would require roughly 35 times more land than you would for peas, beans, and other pulses.
Rainforests and livestock grazing are in direct competition for land usage. The UK and Ireland have the lowest forest coverage in Europe, with only 13% and 11%, respectively, and just a fraction of this is natural forest rather than planted. By reducing meat consumption and consuming more plant-based foods, your diet will have a smaller land footprint, which will free up more space for forests and rainforests to thrive.
Although grasslands with limited grazing in the British Isles can serve as essential ecosystems for wildflowers and insects, most grazing land doesn’t resemble this. Grassland nature reserves that are maintained for nature preservation rather than farming, such as Martin Down in Hampshire, include trees and shrubs, and during spring and summer, they are filled with birdsong, butterflies, and orchids. These reserves differ greatly from the intensively grazed fields and hillsides that resemble billiard tables and constitute a significant portion of the grasslands in the UK and Ireland.
While consuming meat from well-managed nature reserves might be considered acceptable for the environment and climate, such small quantities are produced that meat consumption would have to drop far beyond current reduction targets.
In addition, it’s worth noting that while British grass-fed cows primarily consume grass, they also receive supplementary crops. This results in a larger arable land footprint per 100g than British legumes. Additionally, when you consider the grazing land required, their overall footprint is significantly larger.
Preserving on-farm biodiversity is crucial, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of conserving and restoring unfarmed ecosystems that many species prefer. Unfortunately, the UK and Ireland are among the most nature-depleted countries globally, and the widespread grazing of grass-fed livestock is harming rather than benefiting nature.
Campaigners like Guy Shrubsole and Eoghan Daltun have helped raise awareness about the rainforests in Britain and Ireland. While people are becoming more conscious of the climate impact of meat, there is still less discussion about the large land footprint it requires and how it harms nature and biodiversity. This needs to change if the world is to achieve its recent commitments to protect and restore nature made at the COP15 summit focused on biodiversity.