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Upland farming: Tradition at stake as Welsh hill farmers face a new era

Upland farmers have been promised a bright future under a public money for public goods scheme in Wales, but they remain concerned about life outside the EU.

 

In the third part of Farmers Guardian’s upland series, Abi Kay explores why...

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Upland farming: Tradition at stake as Welsh hill farmers face a new era

Politicians have promised to make life ever so slightly easier for farmers living atop the mountains after Brexit.

 

Harsh weather conditions, difficult topography and low soil fertility have always made hill farming particularly difficult, but for those willing to provide flood mitigation, preserve wildlife habitats or store carbon, the Welsh Government’s ‘Brexit and Our Land’ policy consultation offers new opportunities.

 

Despite this, many hill farmers in Wales remain concerned about their future outside the EU.

 

Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) South Wales regional vice-president Ian Rickman, who farms sheep near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, said: “There is massive uncertainty with Brexit, especially in the upland sector.

 

“And the Welsh Government, with its consultation on proposals for the future, has just piled another level of uncertainty on.

 

“They have more or less said basic payments are gone and we are moving to business efficiency grants and public goods payments, but there is no modelling, costing or figures for payments.

 

“They are going to take it away with one hand and they are offering nothing back, other than an aspiration."

 


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Emyr Wyn Davies, the union’s county executive officer for Montgomeryshire, added: “There will be more scope towards upland farmers with the public goods scheme, but there are no payment rates behind this.

 

“We do not know what we are looking towards.”

 

For tenants, such as Meilir Jones, who farms beef and sheep near Machynlleth, Powys, there is an even greater fear of being locked out of future support altogether.

 

If the public goods scheme offered 10- or 15-year contracts, farmers on short-term tenancies would be unable to sign up.

 

They may also face barriers if their landlords refused to allow them to carry out the work, such as tree planting, necessary under the contractual terms.

 

Mr Jones said: “They have not mentioned anything about the tenancy, there is a question, but there are no answers.”

 

The suggestion environmental payments will be high enough to replace direct support in any meaningful way is also viewed with scepticism by farmers, who fear the budget will be swallowed up by the cost of administering the new scheme.

Mr Rickman said: “The consultation says they need to expand the support system outside current recipients of the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP], so this is going to dilute the pot.

 

“And I cannot believe the new scheme will not cost more to administer. There are about 3,500 Glastir agreements, and now they are going to roll this out to 20,000 plus land owners.

 

“We need some clarity on the logistics and the costs.”

 

Fears about what will happen to farm incomes and the environment when existing Glastir contracts come to an end are also growing.

 

Mr Jones said: “You cannot plan ahead. I am in my last year in Glastir Advanced and I do not know exactly what will happen to that now.

 

“If there is no extension, I will have to produce more on the farm to get money.”

 

Mr Rickman, whose sheep graze common land on the Black Mountain, has similar concerns about his Glastir Commons payments coming to an end.

 

At the moment it is unclear what support will be available on common land after Brexit.

 

Mr Rickman said: “The Glastir scheme is not ideal by any means, but it keeps hefted sheep on the common.

 

“There are a lot of people turning up to our common who have said if the Glastir Commons payments go, they will not bother turning sheep up there, because it is getting increasingly difficult.

“Once these hefted sheep go off the commons, you have lost the traditional practice of a ewe going up to graze with her lamb every year.

 

“That will be it, commons gone. Without a replacement for Glastir Commons, there is a serious risk of that happening.”

 

This possible loss of tradition, culture and a sense of rural community is something all farmers fear and is the reason why the abolition of direct payments is so strongly opposed by the farming industry in Wales.

 

Dafydd Jones, a sheep and beef farmer from Ponterwyd, Ceredigion, questioned how the public goods payments would be calculated and whether they would be enough to keep people on the land.

 

“It is quite worrying the way the Welsh Government is thinking of going,” he said.

 

“You need payments which are quite stable. Whatever is paid, it has got to keep us in these rural communities and make sure we spend the money we have in our local communities because otherwise they will die.”

 

Mr Rickman agreed, pointing out farmers would do all they can to survive without direct payments, but it would mean ‘keeping the cheque book in the drawer’.

 

“We are not going to spend money with the local feed firm, the local hauliers and the local garage,” he said.

 

“It is the local communities which are going to see that effect first, and this is the big danger.”

Cultural heritage is paramount to Welsh upland communities

Cultural heritage is paramount to Welsh upland communities

For Emyr Wyn Davies, a top priority is keeping the Welsh language alive.

 

He said: “In my area, 90 per cent of the agricultural community are Welsh speaking. In the villages it is only 10 per cent, so if you take away farming, the Welsh language will go.

 

“There needs to be a future for the next generation. They need to go to a local school, speaking their first language, which is Welsh.

 

“We want to make sure we can keep these youngsters in the communities and keep the old craft of common land, hedge laying and dry stone walling.

 

“We have got people in these communities and we want to keep them there, not lose them. Once you lose them, you lose everything.”

 

It is this worry about losing everything valuable in the countryside during the move to a different support system which has prompted calls for a 10-year transition period.

 

Dafydd Jones said: “We need a long transition period, not just for the farmer, but for the Welsh Government to know what they are doing.

 

“Politicians do not realise when they make these decisions it takes a long time to correct them if they are wrong. They have to make sure things are right before they start.”

 

His son, Rheinallt, agreed.

 

“Glastir came in too quickly from Tir Gofal,” he said.

 

“There were many mistakes and they would not admit it.”

 

One such mistake, argued Mr Rickman and Dafydd Jones, was destocking the hills to the point where they became undergrazed.

 

Mr Rickman said: “There were more sheep up on the common 20 years ago than there should have been because of headage payments, but now we are in the reverse situation.

 

“There is less stock going up there and the commons are becoming undergrazed, so there is a fire risk. The fire service is very concerned about it.”

Ag-environment rules are weakening sheep breeds

Ag-environment rules are weakening sheep breeds

DAFYDD Jones also suggested his mountain sheep were losing their hardiness because of agri-environmental rules.

 

“It has taken hundreds of years to get sheep to survive on these hills, and this meant the sheep had to be on the hills over the winter months to keep the hardiness,” he said.

 

“Nowadays, everything is coming off the hill in October and you are losing the hardiness, because once the sheep are used to the low fields, they do not really want to go back to the hill.”

 

But it is not just future agricultural policy Welsh upland farmers are worried about. The possibility of losing their biggest overseas market for their main export, lamb, is also filling them with dread.

 

Meilir Jones said: “Most of my produce is lamb and we are dependent on the European trade for these small lambs.

 

“If we do not get a free trade deal with Europe there will be tariffs on our produce and the sheep sector will be in serious trouble. It will take decades to implement new markets for us.”

 

For Meilir, like most of his colleagues in the hills, opportunities to adapt or diversify are limited.

 

“The trade for small lambs is poor compared to standard and heavy lambs, so I have adapted my own farming style to get these better lambs to market, but where I am it is very hard to do this,” he said.

 

“If this consultation goes ahead, we will have to find some plans to diversify on-farm or I will have to look for part-time work to get a little bit more.

 

“We do not want to diversify, but maybe in future I will have to.”

 

Mr Rickman knows several farmers who are looking into glamping as a possible future revenue stream, but uncertainty around policy meant they were not taking the leap just yet.

 

“Some people are waiting to see what the Welsh Government comes up with, because if there is an efficiency programme, they could be funded for diversification, so they do not want to go and buy huts now if there is going to be funding for huts in two years’ time,” he said.

 

For Rheinallt Jones, this kind of diversification is not an option.

 

“With the weather we have, you are not going to get the visitors,” he said.

 

“The only thing we are trying to do is bring some cattle into our farming system and cut down the sheep, because we have heard it could be a better future for the cattle industry than the sheep industry.”

 

For all five farmers, the politicians’ promise of a greater tomorrow seems a distant prospect.

 

Meilir Jones said: “I want to farm, it is in my blood.

 

“But this consultation does not give you a lot of hope. It is going to be a challenging time.”

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