facebook pixel

MidPen brings cattle back to the land

by on September 06, 2012

Photo by (c) Sandy Sommer, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
Photo by (c) Sandy Sommer, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is embarking on it’s first major foray into managing rangelands with the planning of the Purisima-To-The-Sea trail, which connects the Santa Cruz mountains to Highway 1.

The district has adopted a policy of  “conservation grazing” — using livestock to control the spread of invasive species, boost the natives, and prevent fires. MidPen District managers are re-introducing cattle — much of it on former ranches –and extending inherited grazing on newly acquired land  along the Purisima-To-The-Sea route.

“The District supports grazing along the San Mateo coast to retain the grasslands, the rural atmosphere and way of life that define this breathtaking landscape,” said Steve Abbors, the District’s General Manager. “We’re also excited to support sustainable farming practices as part of our land management contribution to the region.”

Photo courtesy of (c) MROSD.

The Peninsula’s open space district wasn’t always so accommodating to these 1,000 pound creatures. The old paradigm was to pull cattle off property as soon as it was acquired. Cows can be incredibly destructive creatures, turning creeks into mud holes, stripping lush meadows bare, and trampling threatened or endangered species.

But recent research has brought a turnaround in thinking and reaffirms the importance of a cow’s role in grassland ecology —  if well-managed. There is emerging evidence that moderately grazed areas have a greater diversity and density of plant and animal life, according to district docent Lynn Jackson.

That’s because grazing suppresses exotic annual grasses, which out-compete native plants for light, nutrients and water. Frogs, toads and salamanders flourish near water troughs. And ground squirrel colonies in grazed areas support populations of coyotes, bobcats and hawks. Grazing can also reduce wildfire risks in an area that is too big to mow and too dangerous to burn, and fends off the encroachment of forest.

Cattle removal from San Jose’s Silver Creek hills in the 1990s, for instance, led to a startling depletion in wildflowers and plummeting numbers of its host species, the endangered bay checkerspot butterflies.

Hikers, too, are able to coexist peacefully with cattle. Cattle are roaming again in San Jose’s Coyote Ridge, while in the East Bay Regional Park system, hikers and cattle have long shared meadows, creek crossings, roads and gates.  San Mateo County’s 3.2-mile-long Cowell-Purisima trail passes through grazing land for more than half of its length; trails are fenced off with hog wire and cattle cross the route at several gated crossings.

At Purisima-To-The-Sea there’s a lot of work to do, from fixing fences to installing new spring-loaded gates. Corrals, fences, spring developments, stock ponds, and roads have fallen into disrepair over years of disuse. Grasslands have been encroached by coyote brush, thistle and poison hemlock, according to MidPen rangeland ecologist Clayton Koopmann.

Some of the stock ponds need to be re-lined with clay, if they are to become reliably wet habitats. Volunteers will help eradicate invasive brush.

To help finance the cost of these essential infrastructure improvements, the district created a rental credit process that allows ranchers to do the work and credits their expenditures on labor and materials to their grazing lease bill.

Grazing will be closely monitored. Because the property is located within MidPen district’s Coastside Protection Area, which requires public participation in the district’s policies, the district and its ranching tenants are putting together “conservation grazing” practices and creating a rangeland management plan. The district also consults with the San Mateo County Farm Bureau on its grazing practices and plans.

Decades of devoted stewardship, combined with geographic isolation, have helped keep the beautiful landscape so rural.

Its new owner – and the future generations of hikers along the Purisima-To-The-Sea trail – aim to continue that tradition.

“This county is still agricultural,” said Jackson. “And we’re going to keep it that way.”

Lisa Krieger is the author of “Purisima Possibilities,” the On the Trail review in the October 2012 issue of Bay Nature Magazine.

See more articles in: Farming, Ranching, Foraging, Stewardship

Most recent in Farming, Ranching, Foraging

See all stories in Farming, Ranching, Foraging


Les Barclay on September 14th, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I hope you tend to the conservative side when considering catle grazing. San Mateo County may still have some agriculture (mostly annual crops coast side) but there’s not all that much grazing land, at least not enough to make it some kind of cherished local tradition which must be continued at all costs. I’ve yet to see an example of controlled cattle grazing help re-establish native grasses. The cattle love them as much as the alien annuals, but the wildflowers might benefit. The big question is “Do we want the land to revert to its natural condition (evergreen forest, oak woodland or coastal scrub), or keep it in an artificial, managed successional stage of development, such as open grasslands in many areas? When you speak negatively of the invasion of weeds into “natural” grasslands, remember that coyote brush is a native and is part of the succession back to a wooded environment.

Kendall on September 25th, 2012 at 12:33 pm

It seems to me a slippery slope and a conflict of interest to charge a fee for cattle grazing. It’s too easy to accept a higher cow density and longer grazing season for more cash. I hope that they will put a fairly low cap on the number of cattle allowed to graze each section..
As Les points out, cattle are indescriminate eaters. Even this article points out that that they are incredibly destructive, “but…”. Although the literature that I find indicates that cattle can be used to control star thistle, take a hike across Mt. Diablo. You will find very little star thistle on Mt Diablo until you get close to the Macedo Ranch area, which is one of the few areas where cattle are allowed. The area is deeply infested with it. Perhaps this is an example of bad grazing management or maybe the cattle transport the seeds well.
Also, keep in mind that EB Parks have to put up warning signs about cattle “bumping” hikers. I have read accounts where hikers have received broken bones from those “bumps”, so there is liability that comes with cattle.
Lastly, I very much enjoy hiking in Bay Nature, not Bay Ranchland. Dips in trails turned to mud wallows, cattle blocking trails with steep walls on both sides, trails rutted with hoof imprints 6 inches deep and the scent of dung in the air are reasons why I often choose my hiking trails based on the presence of cattle.

Leave a Comment





Bay Nature