High on opinion but low on facts.

Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth
Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth

Following a talk in Aberystwyth by George Monbiot last spring on “rewilding”, a local ornithologist and friend Roy Bamford wrote a full-page article on the subject in our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. His main thrust, borne out of many years of personal experience, was that rewilding may happen – come what may – and that its effects may be unpredictable. The article was almost entirely uncontroversial but was followed a couple of weeks later by a letter from the Farmers Union of Wales. This included a personal attack on the author and a suggestion that he was quoting tittle-tattle from the internet (among other things) to support his case. I felt that this should not go unchallenged so wrote the following, which was published in the Cambrian a few weeks later.

I am writing with reference to Roy Bamford’s piece ( 3rd July) on rewilding and the subsequent letter from the Dafydd Jones, vice-chairman of the Ceredigion FUW.

Firstly I suggest that it is unfortunate that Mr Jones chose to make such personal comments in his letter. Mr Bamford has already defended himself on the letters page but a less modest man would have gone further. His knowledge is based on the many years of professional field work he has undertaken. It is upon this field work that much research into the relationship between agriculture and wildlife in the Welsh hills has been based. I cannot think of many people more qualified to make these observations than Roy Bamford. So if he quotes studies that include photographic evidence of sheep eating curlew’s eggs then this not an anecdote, it is a fact – unlikely as it may seem to most of us.

On a far more limited scale I have been surveying the same tract of land above Tal-y-bont for 20 years. I walk the same route twice a year and record every bird that I come across. I follow a fence line with improved grassland and heavy sheep grazing on one side, and unimproved grassland or “ffridd” on the other. The contrast could not be more marked. With its very low sheep numbers the ffridd is, in effect, rewilding in action, and it is home to a large and varied selection of small birds. The improved grassland might as well have been concreted over for all the wildlife it contains. A few meadow pipits and a few scavengers and that’s about it.

The farmers that Mr Jones represents have benefitted to the tune of many, many millions of pounds from the public purse since the last war. This same period has seen the Welsh uplands becoming demonstrably more and more impoverished in an ecological sense. The farming industry has itself become more depleted at the same time. Rather than the mixed farming of earlier generations, does the average hill farmer now grow more than one crop – grass? Does he farm more than one product – sheep? I suggest, in many cases, that the answer is no. Through its lack of vision the sheep farming industry has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac, an evolutionary dead-end. So it is a shame that the FUW does not show a more open-minded attitude to the future – which may well include rewilding. It would be far more constructive to do so, and they would be doing their own members a service.

I could have published this letter under “name and address withheld” but chose not to. I’m not afraid to hold such opinions, which would, anyway, probably be held by a large percentage of the population. I realised that the letter might be read by the landowner whose land I walk and that there might be repercussions. And so indeed there have been. This year permission to access his land was refused.

The Cambrian News did not print the final sentence of my letter, which was as follows:

Instead we get the same anti-environment rhetoric that has become the norm from the farming unions – high on opinion and low on facts.

I’m not denying that hill farming might at times be a challenging occupation. I’m not denying that sheep farmers work hard. But so much of their income comes from the public purse. What benefit does the public receive in return for their support? By displaying such reactionary, head-in-the sand attitudes, and continuing to deny what is quite clearly true, farmers and their representatives are their own worst enemies. When the public money runs out they will need all the friends they can find.

I’m including an image of ring ouzels taken yesterday. This has become a scarce species over the decades in Wales, and they are now difficult to see, let alone photograph. But this small group of migratory birds has been feasting on ivy berries not far from here in recent days.

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