Barry Alston meets the Evans brothers as all three take on the presidency of the Welsh Balck Cattle Society and continue to champion the breed that has made their farm a success.
This Saturday will be a red-letter day not once, but three times over for a North Wales-based Meirionnydd extended farming family.
May 4 is the day set for the Welsh Black Cattle Society’s annual meeting and one of the key agenda items will be the election of a breed president.
Normally the honour goes to a single nominee, but this time around the outcome will be unique with three brothers sharing the role – Robert John Evans, Elwyn Pryce Evans and William Hefin Evans.
All farm separately, though not far apart from each other within the Snowdonia National Park, and all three have highly regarded pedigree herds which has meant making a single presidential choice somewhat impossible.
While there may be some friendly rivalry when it comes to pedigree breeding traits there is none where the family is concerned. All three are united on that score and ever ready to provide each other with a helping hand when needed.
In fact, when it was suggested amid some reluctance that just one of them should become the next president, they responded with one voice insistent that the role would have to go to all three or not at all.
As far as their farming activities go, what unites them above all is the Welsh Black – Wales’s only native breed of cattle, steeped in a history dating back to Roman times and renowned for its ability to thrive in craggy uplands or lush lowland pastures.
With an age-span of eight years between them, the brotherly bond was formed at the 242 hectare (600 acres) Eithinfynydd holding at Talybont, a few miles north of Barmouth and where Hefin, the youngest of the three, now farms with his wife, Bethan.
He is the third generation of the family to farm there, the original Esgethin Welsh Black herd having been started there by their late father, William Evans, back in 1958.
Hefin founded his own Llechwedd herd in 1973 and over the years has developed breeding lines that have consistently been in demand from both pedigree and commercial buyers with many sale topping prices – most notably a 16,000 gns bid for Llechwedd Rhys 47.
“Time and time again, given the harsh conditions we have to live with in this area, the Welsh Black has proven its merits,” says Hefin, who away from the farm is also a keen sheepdog trials competitor.
“It will thrive outdoors all year round, produce high-quality beef, is easy calving and has excellent mothering ability. Yes, we have been tempted to look at other breeds, but have remained loyal to the Welsh Black.
“The main aim is to produce bulls capable of meeting a wide range of requirements whether it be for fellow pedigree breeders or commercial cattle farmers looking for a first-class crossing sire.
“In all, we have 70 Welsh Black cows and they fit in well with our 1,000 mainly Welsh Mountain ewes, some of which we are putting to Aberfield rams, with finished lambs being sold deadweight while store lambs and breeding ewes mostly go through the rings at Dolgellau.
“We only have around 48ha (120 acres) that could be classified as good coastal ground, with the remainder being rough upland grazing with a mixture of cattle and sheep proving to be the only really viable system.”
A switch away from early spring to a June calving is underway to make life easier during what is a busy April lambing period.
Bulls from a variety of pedigree herds have been used over the developing years and one in particular making a major influence within the establishment of each of the brothers’ herds was Dulyn Ffefryn 47.
“I paid 410gns for him as a 10-month-old back in 1975 with the three of us sharing him, but between us we sold bulls got by him that were worth around £25,000 which in those days was very welcome,” adds Hefin.
Robert, the eldest of the trio, and his wife Megan, established their standalone Gwern Caernyddion herd in the early 1970’s, based around what then was a near derelict holding above Llanbedr and where the farmhouse had not been lived in since 1946.
First priority was to rebuild the house and stock buildings and gradually over the years additional land has been purchased, taking today’s total area to 104ha (256 acres) rising to a peak of 213 metres (700 feet).
Home bred stock has found its way into a number of the breed’s leading herds, while bulls from the Seisiog herd, in particular, have played their part in their own herd development.
From the start the primary aim has been the production of quality bulls, alongside building up a farm-to-butcher arrangement for finished stock.
In addition to the cattle there are 450 breeding ewes, split between pure Welsh Mountains, Welsh Speckledface and Welsh Mules, some of them going to Charollais or Texel taps and of late finished lambs have been sold on a deadweight basis.
“To me the Welsh Black is the perfect breed for the type of low-grade land we have, coupled with its in-built hardiness, calving ease and excellent mothering ability,” says Robert.
Elwyn established his Gerddi herd in 1969 in the hills above Harlech and overlooking the picturesque backcloth of the Valley of Cwm Bychan and the Rhinog Mountain range.
The farm’s 165ha (410 acres) lie in a coarse upland area which rises to 366m (1,200 feet) with Welsh Blacks having been chosen as the most suited breed for the terrain with the ability to thrive with minimal inputs while producing high-quality meat and milk for their calves.
“All of the cattle are out wintered because of the extreme hardiness and ability to adapt and cope with all weather conditions,” says Elwyn, who has farmed organically since the late 1990s’.
“Over the years the concentration has been on genetics, ensuring that female replacements have good udders and feet, along with producing breeding stock suited to both pedigree and commercial customers.
“Herd health is paramount, and we take pride in having achieved elite status and a closed herd since 1986.
“We no longer purchase stock bulls because over the years we have built up an AI flask which to date contains 32 different bloodlines, some dating back over 40 years.”
Significant, too, is the fact that over the years the Gerddi herd has won the Welsh Black Cattle Society’s ’small herd of the year award’ no less than nine times.
As well as the Welsh Blacks the farm has a flock of 350 Welsh Mountain breeding ewes, some going to Lleyn tups, with 140 replacement Welsh females being kept each year.
Lambing is outdoors during April, with a private marketing arrangement taking the wether lambs for finishing.
As far as the collective presidential duties are concerned with just one society chain and badge of honour customarily worn on ceremonial duties, one dilemma as yet unanswered will be deciding which brother will be wearing it and where.
What there is no doubt about, however, is the family commitment to the Welsh Black breed with the next generation already being deeply involved.
Hefin’s son, Gwynfor, as well as being a member of the breed society council, has established his own herd under the Ysgethin prefix which is making its mark in both pedigree circles and the commercial crossing market.
He also holds the tenancy of Egryn, a 161ha (400 acres) National Trust holding within sight of the home farm, with its land rising to 610m (2,000 feet) and ideal for running a mixture of Welsh Blacks and sheep.
Robert’s son, Medwin, is also playing a major role in the continued development of the Gwern Caernyddion herd alongside building up a considerable reputation for restoring stonewalls – with some superb examples of his work a striking feature around the farm.
Elwyn’s daughter, Jessica, has demonstrated her breed dedication as a former young ambassador for the society, as well as securing an Hybu Cig Cymru scholarship which took her to Australia for the Welsh Black World Breed Conference, and the opportunity to visit Welsh Black herds during her time there.
There have also been some notable successes in the show ring with cattle from her Gerddi Bluog herd.
So, who knows? Breed history could well be repeated in the years ahead – but this time with three cousins making up the presidential team.