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'We cannot keep pumping out these lighter lambs when no-one wants them'

Husband and wife, Geraint and Rachel Davies, Bala, spoke to Hannah Noble about changes they are making on their Welsh hill farm to protect their business in the wake of Brexit.

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'We cannot keep pumping out these lighter lambs when no-one wants them'

As well as running a farm, Fedw Arian Uchaf, located in the Snowdonia National Park, Geraint and Rachel Davies are also busy away from it.

 

Mrs Davies works off-farm as a sub-contractor for Kite Consulting, and both are heavily involved in a number of agricultural groups, including the Meirionnydd branch of the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), where Mr Davies currently holds the positon of county chairman.

 

As well as this, he is also the chairman of the FUW’s Younger Voice Committee, which meets every quarter with meetings and farm visits, gathering views of young people involved in a cross-section of Welsh agricultural industries and feeding them back to the FUW council.

 

Mr Davies says: “The aim of the committee is to help shape the future of farming through the influence of young farmers coming into the industry.”

 

More recently, Mr Davies was appointed as a member of the Board of Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

 

He is the first active farmer to represent the board which is usually comprised of academics, professors, scientists and accountants.

 

Feedback

 

The board oversees a budget of £200 million per year, liaises with team leaders of other NRW departments and gives feedback and suggestions.

 

Mr Davies, who is involved in several hill farming and conservation grazing schemes, says: “I feel that my experience working on the land and with agricultural policy day-today is vital to the board and executive team to get an understanding of how things work on the ground.”

 

Mr and Mrs Davies farm beef and sheep on 486 hectares (1,200 acres) and Fedw Arian Uchaf.

 

As well as Welsh Mountain ewes, Mr and Mrs Davies run a herd of 50 Welsh Black suckler cows put to a Limousin bull, with the intention being to produce commercially viable store cattle from a cow which is suited to and can thrive grazing on the hill.

 

The hill land is a designated site of specific scientific interest and legislation governs its management closely. These constraints were partly why Mr Davies was so keen to be involved with the NRW board.

 

He says: “The potential is there to keep the cattle out all-year-round, but this is not allowed within the conservation grazing scheme.


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“However, cattle are creating the perfect habitat for the golden plover, of which there are only 36 nesting pairs in Wales and some of them are nesting on our mountain.

 

“The financial return is not there to warrant keeping the suckler cows on the hill solely for conservation grazing so we need to breed calves from them and there is a cost involved with this. Government bodies have to understand this,” he adds.

 

Integrating

 

By integrating conservation grazing alongside running a viable business, Mrs Davies says they are trying to show how they can maintain a natural environment but still produce food.

 

She says: “The two are not mutually exclusive. They can work together, especially in the uplands where it should be seen as an opportunity for farms that have traditionally been economically poorer.”

 

Mrs Davies has been a non-executive director for Hybu Cig Cymru for the last two years and, similarly, is the only hill farmer on the board.

 

She says: “I love being involved, it is a challenging time, especially in terms of lamb production in Wales, and where the future is heading.

 

“We cover the UK marketing of Welsh beef and lamb, but are also still exploring opportunities post Brexit and what the different scenarios could mean for our sheep meat industry.”

 

Like many other farmers in the area, for decades the Davies family has relied on the sale of light lamb carcases from its 650 Welsh Mountain ewes, mainly selling into the European export market.

 

However, 35 per cent of Welsh lamb is exported each year and with 90 per cent of this going in to mainland Europe, Mr and Mrs Davies see a great threat looming with a possible no-deal Brexit scenario.

 

Mrs Davies says: “Europe is currently really important for the Welsh sheep meat sector. The biggest markets for our smaller hill lambs are France, Spain and Italy; they like the smaller carcases.”

Despite the importance of the European market, she explains lamb consumption in Europe is in decline, with many millennials cooking less lamb than their parents and grandparents. However, it still represents a large proportion of Welsh exports.

 

Mr Davies says if the UK ends up with no-deal, there should be great concern.

 

He says: “It is the uncertainty that effects our international customers, so rather than risk being balanced on a cliff edge, they are likely to source from elsewhere.

 

Eastern Bloc

 

“And as countries in the Eastern Bloc can produce the same type of carcase for one euro per kilo cheaper, it is time to take new opportunities and look for these new markets.

 

“I think the light lamb market in Europe is dying and the only person who can address that for my business is me. No-one is going to do it for me.”

 

To address their concerns for the decreasing demand for light lamb carcases, over the last two years the Davis family has been reducing the 1,000-strong flock of Welsh Mountain ewes and has currently settled at about 650.

 

Mr Davies says: “It is always easy to increase the sheep numbers going forwards. I would rather be able to do that than scratch my head wondering what to do with so many extra sheep and no outlet for them.”

 

Mrs Davies says: “We have been trying to tweak the sheep for a few years now, realising we cannot keep pumping out these lighter lambs when no-one wants them. It is a case of trying to look backwards and see what the market wants.”

 

Experimenting

 

As well as reducing the number of ewes, they have also been experimenting with alternative breeding and have introduced 50 North Country Cheviot cross Welsh Mountain ewes into the flock.

 

Mr Davies says: “They get no preferential treatment, but they seem to suit our system and produce the type of carcase we want.

 

“As a result, the intention is to phase out the Welsh Mountain ewes to make a Welsh cross Cheviot ewe. The Cheviot cross lambs are also a desired type in the store market too if we decided to go down that route,” Mr Davies adds, despite his principal aim being to finish all lambs on the farm.

 

Mrs Davies says: “It is about making as many of our lambs as possible, if not all of them, desirable on the UK market, whereas in the past they have not been.”

 

April-born lambs are sold finished to Dunbia in Llanybyddr at six months old.

 

Mrs Davies says: “When you sell live, obviously you weigh the lambs yourself, but you do not know what that carcase looks like and how it grades when it is hung up.

 

“The benefit of selling deadweight, rather than through the live markets, is that it gives us data. There is no point making these changes unless we have the data to back it up.”

 

Brexit

 

Minimising the effects of Brexit in whichever form they may arise recently led Mr and Mrs Davies to apply for a grant allowing them to invest in the farm’s infrastructure and they hope to be contract rearing dairy heifers by next spring.

 

They understand the greatest risk of beef and sheep farming is there is no regular income, payments are seasonal and, therefore, they have recognised the benefits in spreading the risk over several enterprises making the business more resilient for the future of UK livestock farming.

 

Mr Davies adds: “I think the unprecedented seriousness of Brexit could be as bad for farmers as the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.”

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