Sheep farming in Wales: confronting uncertainties from foot-and-mouth to Brexit

The PASTRES team recently visited South Wales to learn about sheep farming in the UK. We were hosted by former IDS colleague and pastoralism expert, Jeremy Swift, and had extended discussions in his amazing garden, as well as meeting some of his sheep-farming neighbours.

Sheep were all over the news when we visited: Boris Johnson had just visited nearby Brecon to fight a by-election, while sheep farmers warned of ‘civil unrest’ if no-deal Brexit was pursued. News reports suggested that sheep farming would be wiped out by a no-deal Brexit due to lack of free trade with the rest of Europe. Uncertainties were on everyone’s lips.

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Our group included PASTRES PhD students about to head off to fieldwork in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Sardinia, Tibet and Tunisia.  It was surprising how similar the issues faced by Welsh pastoralists are to those around the world. Like pastoralists everywhere, Welsh sheep farmers must adjust to the changing environment and economy. This means diversification into multiple livelihood pathways; a theme explored in a number of studies on Welsh sheep farming.

The two families we talked to were both shifting from focus just on livestock to other activities. For one family having another job – in this case being a vet – was essential, but renting out cottages, setting up tourism enterprises and so on was also part of changing livelihood alternatives. Even with subsidies – now paid by the EU per area not per head – sheep rearing doesn’t pay, offering meagre annual incomes that are highly variable.

The sheep from the farm we visited make use of the common grazing area on the Sugar Loaf mountain near Abergavenny. Even though owned by the National Trust, they have commoners’ rights as does anyone whose property adjoins the common land. This is rough hill grazing, but the local breeds are adapted to it and grazing through the spring and summer, and are gathered back to the home farm for the winter, where some may be fed supplementary food produced on the farm.

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For extensive grazing, having a well-trained flock is essential. Hefting is the term for territorial grazing that flocks learn, and pass on to their offspring. They spread out in a certain part of the grazing land, making it possible to gather in your own flock with relative ease, keeping it separate from those of your neighbours. Research suggests that hefting is also an adaptation to poor hill grazing, meaning that animals do not concentrate on high nutrient patches and overgraze them, and spread out so other areas are not undergrazed. Some also suggest that such behaviour also reduces disease burdens.

The chair of the commoners’ association explained how the number of flocks grazing the mountain had declined. Now only four flocks regularly use the commons, and the numbers of sheep are declining. Other flocks are held on private land around farms, and no longer have the ability to heft. Such farmers have shifted to a more intensive production system, making use of often expensive feed imported to the farm.

The farm we visited has shifted towards organic production. While this provides a premium for sale of lambs for slaughter and some extra subsidies, it means a less intensive production system, and the need for land on the farm to grow organic feed (a challenge given invasive thistles, docks and bracken). This means the flock has declined in number. Although this is now (just about) manageable by family labour, supported by incredibly well-trained sheep dogs, it is hard year-round work.

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With only four sheep-farming commoners, the remainder who live near the mountain have no connection to pastoralism and live in retirement or holiday homes. Many are not even from the area. This makes commons management a challenge as there are different views as to how the area should be used. Good relations with the National Trust has meant that those who continue to graze are supported, and there are restrictions on other uses, but this may not last. The challenges of common property resource management in pastoral areas is of course a theme across the world.

What happens when pastoralism declines, as it is Wales? Without sheep the landscape will change quickly – it already has as bracken encroaches on grazing land, and with thin soils on exposed land, climax vegetation without livestock would be scrub rather than classic woodland. This already exists on the lower slopes, and we walked back to Abergavenny through beautiful ancient oak woodland, protected as ‘sites of special scientific interest’. The rewilders may regard removing sheep as a victory for a vision of ‘wild nature’, but others will miss the open hills and moorlands that have been maintained by grazing for generations. It will also be a loss of rural culture. What would the nearby annual Llanthony show, held the weekend we left, be without the prize animal competitions and the sheepdog trials?

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While walking up the mountain behind their farm, we discussed livelihood uncertainties. Our informant was sanguine. He loves sheep farming, and is emotionally attached to the farm and the mountain. He does not expect much, he explains – as long as there’s food in the freezer and the basic costs are covered, then he is happy to weather the storms. However other members of the family are not so sure. They haven’t been able to go away together on holiday for years. We were on the mountain with the family on a glorious summer’s day, but it is not always like that. Sometimes snow cuts them off from the nearby town. Their son joined us for the discussion, and was quite adamant that he was going to be an engineer not a sheep farmer – at least not initially.

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The transfer of pastoralism skills across generations is a challenge in all pastoral areas. How to adapt to the uncertainties of new contexts? Major shocks can fundamentally shift the system. In 2001, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK caused devastation. The draconian culling regime the ministry adopted meant many farms’ flocks were exterminated, and all trade ceased. The episode was dubbed ‘carnage by computer’, as the response was led by modellers from Whitehall without knowledge of local contexts.

This devastating policy was implemented around Abergavenny. All animals on the farm we visited were culled, and they had to start again from scratch, with compensation only providing a proportion of the cost. This has been a hard slog, as they explained. Many gave up. Around the corner is the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. This could be catastrophic, as tariffs to Europe could add 40% to the cost. The idea of sending Welsh lamb to Japan instead is of course absurd and the industry will surely collapse if trade is not assured.

In other parts of the world, the narrative that pastoralism is a backward system, heading for extinction is common. But as an important source of rural livelihood, a central part of local culture and as a route to maintaining landscapes and ecosystem services through careful, climate and ecosystem-sensitive management of grazing lands suggest arbitrary elimination is inappropriate. Of course pastoralism has to change – in Wales as elsewhere. Mixing livestock with other land uses, including tourism of different sorts, is an option in accessible and beautiful areas such as South Wales. Attracting young people back to the rural areas, with skills from an education unavailable to previous generations, is vital too. And avoiding catastrophic shocks through more sensible public policy – whether around Brexit or disease outbreaks – must be part of the picture.

With Brexit looming, currently the future looks rather bleak, but it needn’t be so. The skills, passion and commitment of pastoralists, such as the ones we met in Wales, mean that, with the right support, a new form of pastoralism will have a future, just as in other parts of the world.

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