In 1965 the Tryweryn valley – north-west of Bala in north Wales – was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water for the city of Liverpool. This was despite a determined and almost unanimous campaign by Welsh M.P.’s and many other Welsh people. Permission for a dam to be built was the result, unusually, of an Act of Parliament being obtained. This avoided the need for local scrutiny through the planning process. Land and properties were obtained by a process of compulsory purchase; the inhabitants of Capel Celyn were forcibly removed and the village submerged. It is not surprising that the whole episode became pivotal in the recent history of Welsh nationalism. “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) has become shorthand for the English mistreatment of the Welsh nation. The reservoir itself is probably the ugliest in the whole of Wales.
During the run-up to the flooding the Welsh nationalist (and later writer and academic) Meic Stephens drove around Wales scrawling “Cofwich Dryweryn” on various buildings. One, on a ruined cottage in a prominent position by the A487 near Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, survived. It has become a kind of unofficial national monument, despite being partly demolished and rebuilt several times, most notably earlier this year. Following the most recent vandalisation, copycat graffiti quickly appeared in various locations all over Wales. The vandals proved to be their own worst enemy.
I have previously written about Re-wilding – here, for example. The idea was really brought into the public domain by George Monbiot, in his book “Feral” – published in 2013. He lived in Machynlleth (mid-Wales) for several years and what he saw and experienced in the area were very important to his way of thinking. He had explored the hill country around the town and saw how badly it had been “sheep-wrecked”, and how even the conservation agencies were complicit in keeping it that way. In “Feral” he went through the economics of sheep farming in great detail, concluding that without the EU subsidies sheep farming was completely uneconomic. Monbiot said that re-wilding would be a far better use of the land if the farmers were willing to accept it. The farming unions went ballistic! They mistakenly concluded that Monbiot was advocating compulsory re-wilding and that their members would be thrown off their land.
Perhaps if Monbiot had written about sheep farming in the Pennines, for example, where the problems are probably identical, he would have stirred up less bad feeling. The Welsh language is a pretty sensitive subject round here and its heartland is in the farming community. I can understand the sensitivities involved but when the farming community feel most threatened the language issue always comes up. It’s like the nuclear option.
Earlier this year the charity Rewilding Britain announced one of their new projects – Summit to Sea. Based in Machynlleth, the project aims to use re-wilding principles, where appropriate, and agreements with farmers and landowners, to improve biodiversity over a 10,000 hectare area of mid-Wales from the summit of Pumlumon to the coast, and offshore well into the waters of Cardigan Bay. Its “core area” is the Dyfi estuary, already the location of an extensive National Nature Reserve, an RSPB reserve (Ynyshir), and the Dyfi Osprey Project. Alongside the biodiversity aims, the project proposes to create living landscapes where local communities are able to enjoy sustainable lifestyles. It has proved extremely controversial. The farming unions have come out against it, despite the fact that the project is funded to the tune of £3.4m over the first five years. With the future of farming subsidies in such grave doubt following Brexit, why ever would farmers want to look such a gift horse in the mouth? It just doesn’t make sense.
The problem is the “R-word”. Many mid-Wales sheep farmers seem to believe they have an inalienable right to carry on farming the way they are now doing, largely at the public expense. They refuse to accept that the degraded landscapes and wildlife that surround them are the results of their activities – prompted by government policies – over a period of several decades. They do not see why or how they should possibly change their farming methods to give nature a chance to recover. Some – not all – have seen wildlife as the enemy for so long that it is difficult for them to change their mindset. The idea that re-wilding would be compulsory is still propogated by the farming lobby, despite repeated denials.
So there is now a campaign underway to scrap the Summit to Sea project completely. Stickers, banners, and slogans are appearing all over the area saying “no” to re-wilding. One in Machynlleth rather worryingly also includes the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” slogan. Is it their intention to associate re-wilding in mid-Wales with flooding the Tryweryn valley by Liverpool City Council in the 1960’s? One can’t be sure. But there is one big difference: re-wilding will always be voluntary whereas eviction from the village of Capel Celyn was compulsory.
For more on Summit to Sea click here
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