Page last updated at 10:11 GMT, Sunday, 7 December 2008

Modern cowboy keeps cattle safe

By Wena Alun Owen
BBC news

The modern day cowboy

Cowboys do not always wear a Stetson, shout "yee hah!" or eat sausages and beans around a camp fire... well, not on Anglesey anyway.

Hardly any trees grow on the exposed north west of the island where one modern-day cowboy, Chris Bennett, herds 138 cattle.

For him, it's an ideal job, in an attempt to improve the habitat on 700 acres of common land.

Born in St Asaph 44 years ago, he has done all sorts of work with horses.

At one time he hired himself out, with his shire horses, to clear woodland for the National Trust.

But then a foot and mouth outbreak "put me out of business and I had to sell the horses because I couldn't afford to keep them".

Several years later and Mr Bennett settled at Aberffraw, on Anglesey.

It was a happy coincidence then that the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) needed someone to look after cattle on the nearby common.

Native plants

The common near Aberffraw is in fact made up of two commons - Llangadwaladr and Aberffraw - which are split by a mile-long stretch of road.

Over the years as traffic levels built up the 38 local farmers, who have grazing rights on the commons, withdrew their stock because of the dangers of livestock wandering onto the road.

I fit in (to the landscape) when I'm on the horse
Chris Bennett, cowboy

This led to native plants on the land being smothered by their more aggressive neighbours, spoiling the site which enjoys both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and European Special Area of Conservation status.

For the second winter running however the cowboy keeps everyone and everything in check.

He slows traffic down when the cattle want to cross the road; waves speeding drivers down, and discourages off-roaders invading the dunes.

Meanwhile the tiny native plants, ideally suited to the exposed site, have started to thrive.

The horse

His trusty steed is 16 hand, 11-year-old, Tara.

"She's mostly very good, but as a three-quarter thoroughbred, she's not maybe the ideal horse for the job," he says laughing.

"She can run faster than the cattle when they need rounding up, but then she sees it as a bit of a race and wants to pass them on the way back too."

Introducing a horse to the cattle - and vice versa - was interesting, "the first time everything went all over the place", but a couple of weeks later things slotted into place.

There were no accidents involving the cattle and road users last winter.

Temperatures

The aim is for the same target this year - although the head of cattle has gone up from 90-plus to 138, and the grazing season has been extended to four months (from 40 days last year).

The cattle are owned by farmer Richard Owen and are an Australian breed called Murray Grey which are "hardy and healthy, and about as organic as you can get," according to their cowboy.

It's not a job for the faint hearted though.

I visited on a "balmy" dry day with temperatures on the chilly side.

Mr Bennett described the weather as "ideal" and admitted he leaves Tara at home if he feels the weather is too bad for her.

"The horse does not like it if it's very wet and windy, she tends to rear and buck," he said.

"I don't think it's very fair on her, so sometimes I'll leave her at home, and do the job by van and foot."

According to Karen Rawlins, the partnership and communications officer with CCW, the cattle have already improved the habitat by opening up the area.

It has allowed plants, such as early sand grass and various orchids, to pop their heads out of the soil for the first time in years.

"We'd heard of this type of thing being done, but we didn't think we'd find anyone who'd want to do the work here," she said.

Mr Bennett is happy he can fill the gap.

"I fit in (to the landscape) when I'm on the horse," he said.

"It's the ideal job for me as I live here, know people locally, and no two days are the same."



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