Caravan parks and camping grounds, in ordinary circumstances, provide many farms with a vital income boosting stream. Barry Alston finds out more.
You either love them or loathe them. And for the motorist in a hurry they can be a nuisance, but for many traditional family farms they provide a welcome lifeline.
With an estimated 550,000 touring caravans in the UK, as well as some 365,000 static holiday homes, they provide a farming diversification income that in many cases vastly overshadows the returns that can be earned from keeping cattle and sheep.
That is certainly the case as far as Geraint Rowlands is concerned, with the family’s Venner Farm caravan and camping site at Llanelltyd, on the outskirts of Dolgellau, being run side-by-side with a 162 hectare (400 acre) sheep farm in Meirionnydd’s Mawddach Valley.
One of the pioneers of caravanning back in the 1930s, Venner Farm also boasts a much-visited Grade I listed ancient monument. An order of Cistercian monks established Cymer Abbey there in 1198, farming the land by breeding sheep and horses as well as pursuing their religious beliefs, before it was dissolved in 1537.
The present-day farmhouse, originally the abbot’s dwelling, is also steeped in history, being a Grade II listed building with many unique internal features. While the family owns the abbey, the maintenance of what remains is down to Cadw, the Wales-based historical buildings preservation agency.
Geraint is the fifth generation of the family to farm at Venner, half of which is owned and the remainder rented from the Nannau Estate. He farms with his wife, Delyth, daughter Mari, and father, Peter.
Geraint says: “My great-great-grandparents moved to the farm from Trawsfynydd in 1905 and, taking advantage of the then emerging travel bug, established the caravan site in the 1930s making it one of the earliest across the UK.
“My grandparents later expanded the site to its current 2ha (5 acres) in the 1950s and it is now licenced for 58 non-residential static caravans and 30 tourers, together with a small camping field for tents and motor homes, all of which provide essential income for the farm.”
Until 1992 the family kept a dairy herd and while buying in cattle as stores for finishing was also tried for a while, the increasing demands of the caravan site ended that venture 10 years ago.
Now the concentration is on producing lambs from 400 Tregaron-type Welsh Mountain ewes run on a low maintenance basis with mid-March to mid-April outdoor lambing timed to fit in with the out of season caravan activities. “We need a flock that is not too labour intensive, which means the bulk of lambing needs to take place before the site’s traditional Easter opening,” says Geraint.
Ewes mainly go to Texel tups, but for the past two lambings a Charmoise ram has also been used on the smaller females in a bid to add more shape to their lambs. “We are trying to get a little extra weight at killing out and so far, it seems to be working,” says Geraint. “The Charmoise is producing small but solid lambs that are proving to be heavier than they look.”
Lambs are mainly sold as stores through Dolgellau market, with the aim of everything being cleared by the end of December.
“The live auction system works well for us. Our Texel-Welsh crosses are big framed, attract a good demand and we tend to get decent prices for them,” he adds.
At its highest point the farm rises to 304 metres (1,000 feet), though the land there is not heavily grazed. That is down to the farm’s low stocking rate due to the fact that during periods of high rainfall up to 60ha (150 acres) of the lower land alongside the River Mawddach can be flooded. As a result, grazing ground can be in short supply at certain times of the year, but while the area can be very wet, it was water and fishing which initially attracted visitors, and still does.
As with any tourism venture, location can be paramount and weighs heavily on the difference between success or otherwise. Situated in the southern foothills of Snowdonia with some breath-taking scenery, Venner also draws on the nearby attractions of Cader Idris for walkers and climbers, the seaside and boating a few miles away at Barmouth and a purpose-built mountain biking centre at Coed y Brenin.
So popular is the site that there is a waiting list of people wanting a pitch, while some families have links with the site going back for three generations, hailing mostly from the Midlands and into Yorkshire.
While the static homes are privately owned, rent is paid for use of the site from Easter to the end of October, while touring caravans have to be removed during the winter period. Maintenance of the site is down to the family, with recent years seeing the need for fresh investment brought about by the increasing size of caravans.
Geraint says: “The infrastructure, such as the water and electricity supplies, was initially designed for 10-foot wide caravans but these days most are 12-foot wide which means that when new vans arrive we are having to change the hard standings and hook-up arrangements.
“We have also installed electric hook-up points in the camping field to meet the power charging needs of mobile phones and tablets and there is a shower and toilet block.”
The farm has its own spring supply so no charge is made for water, but electricity is metered. Redundant stone-built farm buildings have also been converted into two holiday let cottages.
One worry Geraint has for the future, as far as tourism is concerned, is that the holiday rental market in his part of the world is fast reaching saturation point which, in turn, could have repercussions for farm-based diversification ventures.
“Properties coming on to the housing market are being snapped up by holiday rental companies and pushing up the price of homes for local people,” he says. “The county council has introduced a surcharge for holiday homes but some people have been using a loophole to avoid that charge.
“A lot of housing has been taken out of the market with price tags local people cannot afford to pay and that not only has a knock-on effect on existing tourism activities but on agriculture as well.“In this part of the world farming is very important to the local economy and while the numbers directly employed in the industry may be low, so many other things are supported by it,” says Geraint.
As a former Meirionnydd NFU county chairman, he also has worries over the impact of Brexit on the export market for light lambs. There are also concerns for the industry when the Basic Payment Scheme ends.
“At the moment everyone gets something. My concern with targeted support is whether that will be available for everyone. Not everyone will be able to tap into carbon storage and the like.”
He worries, too, just what affect the coronavirus epidemic will have not only on the family’s own activities but on tourism generally. That is difficult to know but one benefit could be that instead of taking holidays overseas, people may seek to concentrate on UK breaks more in the future.
One thing above all Geraint is grateful for is that diversification has provided the opportunity for him to be at home and working full time on the farm. “A lot of my friends on neighbouring farms have had to take on additional jobs away from the farm because farming alone cannot provide sufficient income,” he says.
But while the majority of the family’s income comes from the holiday diversification business Geraint considers himself as a farmer first and foremost. “Most of my time is taken up by the farm but the majority of the family’s income comes from the caravan site. Without that input, the farm would not be viable.”