5 July 2002

Hill producers revive ancient Welsh system

By Robert Davies Wales correspondent

ONCE stock and farming families moved to the uplands during summer, or Hafod, and back to sheltered grassland during winter, or Hendre. But the key parts of the Hafod a Hendre system, evolved to suit 21st century conditions, are seeing a revival on Welsh units aiming to reduce costs.

Animals still move, but improved transport means stockmen sleep in their own beds. New grass and clover varieties, land and livestock improvement programmes, environmental pressures and changes to the hill farming support have also been evident.

The management system used by Robin Price, on 1090ha (2700 acres) of the Rhiwlas Estate which he farms in hand, is one of the most traditional British Grassland Society members will see at their Summer Meeting. He has deliberately gone back to basics using native breeds and low inputs.

"Ours is basically a low input, low output system which tries to make the most of the type of land we have and the climatic conditions," he explains.

His late father, known to everyone as Colonel Jack, who took over the 7270ha (17,960 acres) estate at Bala, Merioneth-shire, when he left the Army in 1946, would probably be quite at home with a system based on 1700 Welsh Mountain ewes and 120 Welsh Black cows.

He would also probably approve of the policy of using little fertiliser on long term leys. Lime is spread on a 10 year rotation and about 40ha (100 acres) a year are reseeded.

Grass use is optimised by mixed grazing and by summering ewes and lambs on 725ha (1800 acres) of hill land running up to the 690m (2300ft) contour, where the annual rainfall is about 254cm (100in).

Cattle no longer make the long trek to the mountain because experience shows that calves do not grow well enough on unimproved swards, says Mr Price.

"The farm is run with two workers, plus part-time help at peak times.

"Once we produced halfbreds and Mules from the hill flock, but have reverted to pure Welsh ewes to reduce shepherding, mortality and demand for feed."

About 1100 ewes are put to Charollais tups. Their crossbred lambs arrive with little assistance and the potential to grow quickly. This year the first lambs finished at 12 weeks old.

One silage cut is usually taken from about 170ha (420 acres) in the last week of June, But the area was reduced this year because half a pit of the 2001 crop was still in store.

The farm has its own silage equipment, including a precision chop harvester. It cost £6000 second-hand in 1981, though a new one would set the business back £40,000.

But with some silage fields located more than a mile away from the pit, a contractor with high capacity machines was employed last year.

Mr Price believes it would be difficult to stay in business without hill farming subsidies and money from the Tir Gofal whole farm agri-environemt scheme. But his problems pale into insignificance compared with those faced by his father in the terrible winter of 1946/47. All but 82 of the 1100 ewes were killed and the only income was from wool and sale of 22 lambs.

BGS delegates will also see one of the best known herds of Welsh Black cattle. It was founded in 1947, when Jack Price bought a cow and two heifers for about £250 at the dispersal of the Trawscoed herd. No females have been bought since.

"For many years, we have been running a pedigree herd on commercial lines, but now we have reached our target number we can be more selective. We have stopped crossing and have bought a top bull, Iwrch Frank, costing 9000gns.

"I hope to show cattle from our native Welsh breeds at the Royal Welsh Show in 2003, when I have the honour to be president." &#42

The low input, low output system makes the most of available resources, says Robin Price.

&#8226 Traditional farming practice.

&#8226 Allows efficient grass use.

&#8226 Low labour breeds used.

This years BGS Summer Meeting, organised by the North Wales Grassland Societies, focuses on the integrated management of lowland and mountain grazings in Wales. It will be based at the University of Wales, Bangor, with nine farms visited between July 14 and July 18. Day delegate places may also be available (0118-931 8189, fax 0118-966 6941).