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How one British farmer is putting 'Black Gold' back on the Welsh hills

Protecting the natural beauty of the Welsh mountain landscape was high on the priority list for Richard Lewis when he opted to make the move back to the native Welsh Black. Hannah Noble finds out more.

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Richard Lewis has 75 pedigree cows in his Tyn-y-Fach herd.
Richard Lewis has 75 pedigree cows in his Tyn-y-Fach herd.
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Putting 'Black Gold' back on the Welsh hills

Welsh Black cattle have always been a fixture in some capacity at Tyn-y-Fach, Tywyn, Gwynedd, run by Richard Lewis.

 

It is believed they are one of Britain’s oldest cattle breeds with evidence of them residing in the Welsh hills for more than 1,000 years. Used as a currency for trading, they became known as Black Gold.

 

Up to 2016 the herd was a mixture of about 30 Limousin, Charolais and Welsh Black cows put to Charolais bulls and it was then that Mr Lewis decided to bite the bullet and invested in recreating the old Tyn-y-Fach herd of Welsh Blacks, which had been his late father’s herd prefix from the 1950s.

 

He says: “I sold all the cows and calves I had and the bull, and started from there.”

 

Initially, he bought 15 pedigree heifers from the Jenkins family at Tal-y-bont through the local auction market at Dolgellau.

 

Now there is a total of 75 pedigree cows, including 25 heifers which were bought in 2018 and are due to calve for the first time this year.

 

Welsh Black cattle were the preferred breed for Mr Lewis because of their quiet nature. With many footpaths across most of the farm land, and Mr Lewis’ step-children, Emma and Teifion, being actively involved in the farm, safety was a big consideration.

 

That is not to mention the breed’s historical significance and ecological importance.

 

“Their presence is good for the condition and maintenance of the mountain too,” he says.

Welsh Blacks are suited to mountainous terrain.
Welsh Blacks are suited to mountainous terrain.

Slopes

 

Resulting from the amalgamation of two farms, in total the land spans 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of owned land, with Gwystadfryn totalling 546ha (1,350 acres) and Tynyfach 263ha (650 acres), the farm house and buildings of Tynyfach are situated in the valley, just 15 metres (50ft) above sea level.

 

There are only 12ha (30 acres) of flat land on the whole farm, which is positioned surrounding the farm steads. The rest comprises steep slopes and harsh moorland which rises to 670m (2,200ft).

 

Gwystadfryn mountain is 4.5 miles from one end to the other and is split in half to aid grazing. The Welsh Blacks are a hardy breed and have enabled Mr Lewis to utilise the mountain for more of the year.

 

They are turned out at the beginning of March and are housed from mid-December.

 

The only reason they return to the farm during these months is for calving. Mr Lewis’ calving pattern is split into two blocks, with one group calving between October and December and the other
between March and May.

 

Mr Lewis runs two pedigree bulls and cows are divided equally between them during the breeding period.

 

He bought his first pedigree Welsh Black bull in 2017 from Jessica Evans’s Gerddi Bluog herd at Herlech.

 

Mr Lewis says the bull, Gerddi Bluog Rhinog 5, has produced some extremely high quality progeny and is very pleased with his performance so far.

 

More recently he has invested Rhydygarnedd Norman 12, a 20-month-old bull bred by local vet Hugh Williams, Tywyn, again bought through Dolgellau market.

 

Mr Lewis has not yet had any progeny by the bull but says: “I bought this bull because he has a great topline and excellent muscling.

 

“It is great because Hugh has helped me out a lot to get started in the breed.”

 

All animals which are bought in are sourced from high health herds.

 

“We are BVD clear and we are lucky that most Welsh black herds are level one for Johne’s disease,” he says.

Richard Lewis' Welsh Blacks will be in the Royal Welsh showring this year.
Richard Lewis' Welsh Blacks will be in the Royal Welsh showring this year.

Scores

 

“I aim to buy cattle which are used to a similar climate and terrain to Tynyfach, as cattle brought up in a less harsh environment do not seem to last as well. They have to be able to survive on the mountain, so we keep a close eye on body condition scores.”

 

The bulls remain with the cows for two months to ensure a tight calving pattern.

 

William’s Vets at Tywyn are used for all veterinary work and thy scan the cows two months after the bulls have been taken out.

 

“This year we were extremely lucky and there was only one cow which scanned empty”, says Mr Lewis.

 

Cows will stay inside until calved, if weather is particularly bad they will stay close to the farm before they go up the mountain.

 

Due to the nature of the landscape, Mr Lewis only has access to about 12ha (30 acres) of land suitable for mowing, so in order to make all the silage required for winter, he aims to get four cuts, starting from mid-May.

 

Alongside this, he grows 4ha (10 acres) of wheat for wholecrop, which is baled and fed during winter.

 

Mr Lewis says in terms of costs, the Welsh Blacks require much less feed for maintenance than the continental breeds and so he can afford to provide no buffer feed to the cattle when they are on the hill.

 

The only animals which are provided with extra feed are the calves, which start being fed creep as soon as they come inside for winter.

 

As well as the cattle, Mr Lewis runs 450 Welsh Mountain sheep to support income and to facilitate mixed grazing on the hill.

 

Despite the topography of the land, each year Mr Lewis aims to plough about 20 acres and grows forage rape to finish the lambs on, which are all sold deadweight to Dunbia. All ewes are lambed outside from mid-March.

 

Contracting is the farm’s main income stream, they cover an area as far as Aberystwyth, carrying out general contracting work but mostly ploughing and spreading lime.

Workload

 

Mr Lewis employs other friends and contractors to help keep up with the workload.

 

“Contracting takes over most of the summer work, from May through to September we are flat out, so it important that the cattle I have are easy to manage,” he says.

 

Mr Lewis’s aim is to grow the herd from within now he has established a nucleus, and this year he intends on keeping back about 20 heifers.

 

This will result in poor cash flow, but he said this is what he needs to do in order to grow the herd to his target of 100 cows over the next few years.

 

Any animals which are surplus to the requirements for replacements will be sold through Dolgellau livestock market, with the heifers being sold for breeding stock and steers selling as stores for fattening.

 

“Because I’m new it’s a bit harder for people to want to buy stock for breeding, but that is why I want to do some showing this year, to get a reputation and build a brand.”

Farm Facts

  • In order to accommodate the growing herd, Mr Lewis has gained planning permission for a new 30m by 13m (100ft by 45ft) shed which will be built this year
  • The Tyn-y-Fach herd of Welsh Blacks will make their show ring debut at this year’s Royal Welsh show, with halter training underway
  • The bulls remain with the cows for two months to ensure a tight calving pattern
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