In ruminants, methane (CH4) is a by-product of digestion and contributes significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to agriculture. Grazed grass is a relatively cheap and nutritious feed but herbage species and nutritional quality vary between pastures, with management, land type and season all potentially impacting on animal performance and CH4 production. The objective of this study was to evaluate performance and compare CH4 emissions from cattle of dairy and beef origin grazing two grassland ecosystems: lowland improved grassland (LG) and upland semi-natural grassland (UG). Forty-eight spring-born beef cattle (24 Holstein–Friesian steers, 14 Charolais crossbred steers and 10 Charolais crossbred heifers of 407 (s.d. 29), 469 (s.d. 36) and 422 (s.d. 50) kg BW, respectively), were distributed across two balanced groups that grazed the UG and LG sites from 1 June to 29 September at stocking rates (number of animals per hectare) of 1.4 and 6.7, respectively. Methane emissions and feed dry matter (DM) intake were estimated by the SF6 tracer and n-alkane techniques, respectively, and BW was recorded across three experimental periods that reflected the progression of the grazing season. Overall, cattle grazed on UG had significantly lower (P<0.001) mean daily DM intake (8.68 v. 9.55 kg/day), CH4 emissions (176 v. 202 g/day) and BW gain (BWG; 0.73 v. 1.08 kg/day) than the cattle grazed on LG but there was no difference (P>0.05) in CH4 emissions per unit of feed intake when expressed either on a DM basis (20.7 and 21.6 g CH4 per kg DM intake for UG and LG, respectively) or as a percentage of the gross energy intake (6.0% v. 6.5% for UG and LG, respectively). However, cattle grazing UG had significantly (P<0.001) greater mean daily CH4 emissions than those grazing LG when expressed relative to BWG (261 v. 197 g CH4/kg, respectively). The greater DM intake and BWG of cattle grazing LG than UG reflected the poorer nutritive value of the UG grassland. Although absolute rates of CH4 emissions (g/day) were lower from cattle grazing UG than LG, cattle grazing UG would be expected to take longer to reach an acceptable finishing weight, thereby potentially off-setting this apparent advantage. Methane emissions constitute an adverse environmental impact of grazing by cattle but the contribution of cattle to ecosystem management (i.e. promoting biodiversity) should also be considered when evaluating the usefulness of different breeds for grazing semi-natural or unimproved grassland.