Making livestock sustainable

Prizewinning graduate Jennifer Davies

A passion for sustainable agriculture and a belief in the role of livestock farming encouraged a Lancaster University graduate to change direction in her career and return to study.

Being brought up on a dairy farm meant that Jennifer Davies always thought she’d end up working in an area related to farming.

But when she graduated in Environmental Biology from Lancaster University, Jennifer landed a good job as a research and development chemist developing products for a paint company in north Wales. She did well and ended up leading a team. But after six years, she decided she wanted to make a change in her life. 

“Being in a lab all day wasn’t working for me. Farming was my life growing up and I realised I still wanted to be involved in it in some way.”

Jennifer decided to return to Lancaster University to do an MSc in Environmental Management, attracted by the opportunity to do an industry based project for her dissertation, and by the discount on postgraduate fees the University offers to it graduates.

“I was apprehensive about coming back to study, giving up a good job to step into the unknown again. I was also worried about going back into farming, an industry with a very uncertain future.”

She overcame her worries and, despite suffering a serious illness during her course, Jennifer performed well and gained a distinction in her master’s degree, winning the Lancaster Environment Centre prize for the Best Industry Based Project by a 2018 postgraduate.

Her prizewinning dissertation project involved working with Lancaster University’s Facilities and Estates departments on how to develop the 67-hectare Forrest Hills site, which the University owns. The site is currently used as a conference centre, golf course and for grazing livestock, as well as being the site for the University’s Forest of the Future Project.

The Forest of the Future Project was launched in 2018 through the planting of half a hectare of trees but the University had no clear plans of what they wanted to do with the site overall.

Jennifer created five scenarios of how the Forrest Hills site could operate in 50 or 100 years time, evaluating both the financial and environmental benefits of each scenario. She included conference facilities, timber production, energy generation and low intensity farming in her plans.

“I was keen to include farming in most of my scenarios but I wanted to do it in a more sustainable way and provide a nice balance to the site, retaining the beauty of open grassland with a mix of woodland.

She explored the environmental, cultural and economic benefits for each project and land use. “It is possible that the Lancaster Environment Centre and other University Departments could use the site for education and research.”

Jennifer enjoyed getting out and exploring the site and using her imagination to come up with ideas of how it might look, and what might be farmed. “I had to be a bit creative and make educated assumptions based on the literature I had read, and then play around with my ideas and map them out.”

The hardest part for Jennifer was working out how to calculate and compare the economics of the five different scenarios: “I’d never done any economics or financing before so I had to learn that from scratch. It was good to get my teeth into something different.”

In her taught modules Jennifer focused on food security topics such as sustainable soil management, crop protection and how to manage habitats.

“So it all tied in rather nicely with the dissertation, I could take in bits of pretty much all I had done throughout the year.”

She’s received positive feedback on her work from some of the University staff responsible for Forrest Hills, who were especially interested in her ideas about developing a diverse range of habitats and the potential of the site to offer educational opportunities for the university. She’s been invited back to Lancaster to present her project findings to a wider group.

Jennifer is now looking for a career in agricultural consultancy: “I’d like to be doing similar work to what I did on my project but working with farmers. I’d like to use my knowledge and skills in a positive manner to help the farming industry towards a sustainable future.”

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