The R word.

Cofiwch Dryweryn, Llanrhystud

Part One:

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.

Part Two:

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.

Re-wilding protest, Machynlleth

Part Three:

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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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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