MOILIES FOR SILVOPASTURE?

It is well known that traditional breeds of cattle like the Irish Moiled (or Moilies) are highly suited to conservation grazing on rougher, mixed-species pasture. In many agroforestry systems, such pastures (as well as more highly productive grassland of course), are combined with trees in a variety of planting scenarios and spacings. We have been very interested to see and hear if Moilies would be particularly suited to this type of silvopasture, as we had seen Moilies in a variety of situations –  coastal sand dunes, rough scrub etc – and they all seemed to do really well.

Geraldine and myself (Jim) have a long-standing interest in islands so when we saw that the Irish Moiled Cattle Society was having its Annual Breeders day in August (2023), on Rutland Island, on the coast of Donegal off Burtonport, we decided to go along and see how the cattle were doing and get breeders’ thoughts on how useful the cattle might be among trees. On Rutland we viewed the island-based Inis Fraoigh herd of Irish Moileds, owned by Denis O’Boyle and family. The cattle looked great, were performing really well on the rough, natural pastures of the island and were easy to manage and keep in good condition outdoors all year round. And they were controlling areas of rampant bracken by their trampling. They looked so well adapted to their surroundings in that relatively exposed landscape.

All of the breeders we talked to thought that Moilies would be ideal in silvopasture. They could certainly utilise the rough scrub and understorey to be found under the trees. Interestingly, some said that when the Moilie cows are near to calving they like to find somewhere shaded and “private” and calve there – under or behind trees being ideal.  

Clive, who farms Moiled cattle in silvopasture in Co Sligo says that native breeds like Irish Moiled cattle tend to have a lot more inherent natural behaviours – the strong mothering traits in cows and hiding instincts in calves are notable. Their genetic ”memories” are closer to their wild ancestors, and their ability to utilise a broad range of plants in their diet is often superior to modern breeds that have been selected to perform on a limited diet of grain and simplified pastures of ryegrass and clover.  

Clive says “Our Moilies are typically the first animals in the herd to seek browse in the hedge, nibbling at new woody stems and the leaves from the trees.  Because tree roots run deep into the soil, the leaves are rich in trace minerals and nutrients; these minerals can be lacking in pasture plants. One of the many benefits of agroforestry systems is the increased access to browse and the diversity of forage available due to the abundance of trees in the landscape. The innate wisdom to seek and eat this diversity of plants is a valuable skill for maintaining optimal nutritional health. Luckily, herd animals have a great ability to learn from each other; therefore, including a few native breeds like Moilies in a herd can broaden the eating habits and health of the whole herd”. 

Some pictures of Clive’s cattle are shown below – lovely looking animals!

Nigel and Andrew McKee from the Ards Peninsula, Co Down, who are enthusiastic Moilie breeders, are planning to plant silvopasture on their farm near Greyabbey to run the Moilies in.

A lot of improvement work has been done on the breed, while still retaining its original inherent native characteristics.  They are in high demand for their meat, and while the size of the breed has not changed, their carcase and confirmation has, and that is down to breeders being very selective in what they keep for breeding and what they let go for beef production.  Classification (this is where the animal is scored on its confirmation and locomotion) is also backing this up, as the Irish Moileds that are being classified are scoring as high and higher than other native beef breeds.  Over the last number of years breeders are and have been working hard to improve the breed. Clive can vouch for the strong demand for the meat he sells.

 Breeders David and Sandra Scott, who conservation-graze the cattle on the North Antrim coast but are also supplying local restaurants and providing beef boxes, write: – “Our Cattle are really at home on this type of land that combines grass, vegetation and trees.  We have noticed Irish Moileds will nibble things that other cattle won’t – like bramble. They are light-footed and make limited damage to the ground. They have a network of narrow pathways they all adhere to. With the wide area, they have favourite spots and move around with the sun. They take advantage of the protection and shelter of the trees: they rest there and calve in the most secluded areas. They take great joy in nibbling the variety of foliage.  In return, they make new bare ground and, by nibbling, reduce heavy cover and make differing heights of vegetation. We have seen an increase in the number of finer plants. With the more varied diet (there is a huge amount of evidence for the nutritional and health value of tree fodder) and comparative natural life, our cattle thrive and have luscious shiny coats and bright eyes. A healthy animal makes better meat.  Our Moilie beef is more succulent and richer compared to the commercial kind.  We are finding that demand is so high, it is outstripping our supply at the moment.” ( ).

Some of Sandra and David’s cattle on the North Antrim coast.

Heading out across Rutland Island after being dropped off by the ferry on the Breeders Day out.

The Moilies were perfectly happy in this environment.

Proud owners and breeders, the O’Boyle family on Rutland Island.

For more information on the breed, see the breed society website (www.irishmoiledcattlesociety.com)  or contact the Secretary, Michelle Mc Cauley ( ). And for more information on agroforestry /silvopasture see the Irish Agroforestry Forum website  www.irishagroforestry.ie

Definitely a role for Moilies in silvopasture!

Jim McAdam and Clive Bright, Founding members, Irish Agroforestry Forum.