With NSA Welsh Sheep due to be held on May 16, Laura Bowyer visits the host farm in the heart of the Brecon Beacons to see what is in store.
This year’s NSA Welsh Sheep event is descending on Llwyn Bedw, Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon, the home of Stephen and Lisa Williams and their 22-year-old son Luke. Together with Stephen’s father Godfrey, the family keep 3,000 Talybont-type Welsh Mountain ewes, the area’s own breed, and a lowland flock of 300 Charollais cross Talybont ewes run across 405 hectares (1,000 acres).
More than a dozen farms were lost when much of the valley was flooded in the early 1930s to form the three-mile long Talybont Reservoir, and the Williams family were allocated the land they now farm, owned by Dŵr Cymru (Welsh Water).
The Talybont flock is almost closed, with 60 home-bred rams used on the ewes, but occasionally new rams will be bought-in to introduce new blood and bring the breeding back to the Talybont type, which is a mix of Welsh Mountain and Brecknock Hill Cheviot.
Stephen says: “It is believed the Welsh do well on the sandstone side of the hill and the Cheviots better on the limestone, so they crossed the two to meet in the middle.
“Talybont ewes are hardy and give good lambs with good conformation.”
Godfrey has not always been farming though and spent the first part of his working life in the South Wales coal industry, including a spell clearing up the wreckage at the scene of the Aberfan disaster, before starting his own plant and haulage business which had 16 lorries at its peak.
On being called back to Llwyn Bedw in 1982 to take over from his father, Godfrey says there were no fences or sheds in place, with 1,000 Talybont ewes and 10 Hereford cross cows. Godfrey built many miles of fencing and, with his plant business, was able to level a sizeable yard into the hillside where the farm buildings now sit. Over the years he has put in a lot of shed space, making it an ideal venue for the NSA event.
Godfrey says: “When I came back here in the 1980s the ground was largely fern, brush and some plantain, which has done a full circle now.
“Farming would not have financed the improvements we made here. It would not have been achieved without the haulage business behind me.”
Stephen grew up in Aberdare, South Wales Valleys, where Godfrey still lives with wife Mair, driving a 50-mile (80km) round trip every day to the farm. Stephen says the closest he ever came to farming before going to Llwyn Bedw at the age of 15 was helping a local farmer make hay, but he ‘took to it like a duck to water’.
The farm sits at an altitude of 183 metres (600ft) but ground runs up on to the top of the Brecon Beacons. The terrain surrounding Talybont is true hill sheep country, being too steep for a quad bike so only two-wheeled motorbikes are used when gathering the hill. The weather can also work against farmers in the valley and Godfrey describes how 3,000 of the 7,000 sheep grazing the valley were lost in the snow of 1947, and Italian prisoners of war were put to burying them.
Being strong supporters of the live trade, all lambs are sold finished through Talybont and Brecon markets. Lowland lambs begin to leave the farm at the end of July and hill lambs follow from the end of August until November. Any later finishing lambs are sold in Penderyn at Christmas time.
Stephen says: “A lot of the lambs we finish will go for the export trade, so we take them to market at 28-36kg.”
Lambing from the second week of February, with the hill flock starting on April 1, and finishing in the first week of May, the lowland flock is lambed inside, along with twin-bearers from the hill flock.
Hill ewes with twins are also kept on lower ground for longer before being sent back to the hill with their lambs.
This year the home-bred lowland flock of Charollais cross Talybonts, which are put to a Texel, scanned at 160 per cent while the Talybonts were at 120 per cent.
A group of 750 home-bred ewe lambs (600 Talybonts and 150 Charollais crosses) are sent to Oxfordshire each year on tack and will enter the breeding flock as yearlings.
A mixture of haylage, sugar beet and concentrates are fed out to ewes when required. A tonne of concentrates is fed across the farm each day when at full feeding, taking four hours of their workman’s day. Arvydas Kazlauskas is Lithuanian and has worked for the family for eight years.
Stephen says: “We feed sugar beet rather than fodder beet as it gets through a frost better and is a good feed.
“We have to train our hill ewes to eat concentrates. We shut them in a shed with the feed and make them eat, so when they are in-lamb they take it.”
With hill rights for Buckland Common, Stephen says all commoners have a good relationship and they try to gather the hill together, which is a 13 mile walk on foot.
He says: “We use the hill to its full potential half of which is good grazing and accessible by tractor, and the rest is rough grazing.”
Pastures are improved via slot seeding but manure cannot be spread on the Williams’ ground as it is only a matter of meters from the reservoir.
Stephen says: “We are looking forward to holding NSA Welsh Sheep here. All the local farmers are helping us get ready and everyone is looking forward to it as it has never come to this area before.”
11AM: Brexit forum
12.30PM: Future models for public money towards farming
2PM: Antibiotic resistance - Responding to the challenge
11.30AM and 1.30PM: Planning for a healthy flock, with MSD
Noon and 3PM: How trees and woodland can help you, presented by the Woodland Trust.
Adults - £12
NSA members – free on production of a 2017 membership card
Agricultural students – free on production of a valid student union card
Under 16s - free