3 November 1995


Traditional values hold their own on one Welsh hill farm, even though the Jones brothers management decisions are increasingly dictated by bureaucracy. Rebecca Austin reports

THIS is Gods own country – albeit shared with the Jones family for five generations.

The present custodians of the 1012ha (2500 acres) within the breathtaking Elan Valley at Nant Llwyd, Tregaron, are five brothers John, David, Jenkin, Glyn and Alun.

They manage the land with the attitude of their forebears: Welsh Mountain ewes on the Welsh Mountain.

But Whitehall increasingly plays its hand in the way the farm is worked. The area has been designated a site of special scientific interest, as well as an environmentally sensitive area. It has been an SSSI for six years and is under agreement for another 10 years, with an option to withdraw in five.

"We are governed by officialdom," says John Jones. "Even if we want to repair a fence we have to ask permission. But the ESA scheme is a bonus because it pays."

So bureaucrats dictate there should be a sheep to the acre to maintain the fauna and flora within the designated areas. But weather governs all other managerial decisions on this hill farm, which starts at 259m (850ft) and runs to 456m (1497ft).

The farm relies on sending stock off "on tack" during the winter to give them a "boost" and lighten the number of sheep on the hill. About 200 two-tooth ewes are wintered in Glamorgan from October to the last week in March, when they return to lamb at Nant Llwyd.

"We send some of our Welsh rams down as well as a Swaledale. A Welsh Mountain ram from Glamorgan is also used, although its lambs are never as strong," says Mr Jones. "Our father said you should always buy a ram from up the mountain rather than below, because they will always be hardy enough for your own farm. The ram from Glamorgan proves that."

Over the same period 350 ewe lambs are wintered away on dairy and arable farms in the south and 400 four-year-old ewes are bought privately by a farmer in Mon-mouth.

Lambing starts on Apr 5, when the days are longer, the weather kinder and spring nearer. All the ewes, except those which are not thriving and ewe lambs, lamb on the hill. There are few problems because "we are using Welsh ewes on a Welsh mountain", he says. "This spring, though, we had a snow storm on Easter Saturday and floods on the Sunday and Monday. This meant a number of lambs were washed off with the streams."

To try to prevent the weather, especially the wet, claiming too many lives the Jones brothers do not go round the sheep each day – as they would do in fine conditions – if it is rough. "If you do you are likely to kill more lambs as the ewes come for food and lambs are washed away in the streams as they try to keep up with their mothers," explains John.

There is nothing equal to grass, the brothers claim, but they feed 18t of Rumevite blocks and 23t of sugar beet pulp nuts to the flock, which is up on the hill from early December until the beginning of May. Those further down get through the same number of Rumevite blocks but 22t of fodder beet is offered, rather than beet pulp. "This part of the hill is more accessible with the link box and front-end loader which is why they have fodder beet. Also, it is cheaper and more convenient to feed because we only need go out and feed once a week rather than every two days as with the beet pulp," explains Mr Jones.

The sheep are always fed at the top of the hill. "When the weather is bad sheep tend to crowd down in the shelter of the valleys and overgraze the land there. But when they hear the bike they always come up for food."

Cases of staggers have dropped since Rumevite blocks were introduced, as the land is short of calcium, magnesium, cobalt and selenium.

Other losses can be attributed to vermin. Rogue foxes account for up to 50 lambs a season and badgers are not averse to helping themselves. "Crows pick out the eyes and take weak lambs as do ravens and other birds of prey," he says.

When the weather improves the Welsh Mountain ponies return from on tack and are used for shepherding. The Joneses are renowned for working sheep with ponies and have displayed their skills at the Royal Welsh show and the Food and Farming fair held in Londons Hyde Park.

"It is far better than using the bike because you can see and hear the sheep more easily," says John. "The ponies can also reach inaccessible places and if you get off they will never run off while they have a saddle on."

The spring and summer are the busiest time of year. If they are not marking, dipping or drafting at Nant Llwyd, they will be helping a neighbour, a tradition which is still very strong in these Welsh Mountains.

The first task after lambing is marking, which starts in the third week of May. Male lambs are castrated using the Burdizzo method and all are tattooed with the traditional family notches and marks in both ears. They are also wormed.

The second Tuesday after the last Friday in June heralds the shearing contractors. Even though the brothers were pioneers of contract shearing in Cardiganshire in 1959, they now use contractors, who take four days to clip the flock. The ewes are wormed at this stage and treated with Spot-on against ticks, which live in the bracken.

Wether lambs are drafted in August and kept in the better fields around the farm buildings. The first group is finished by the first week after the Royal Welsh Show and all will have left the farm by the first week in December.

They are destined for the Spanish and Italian export markets at 10kg dw. "Before this market emerged about 15 years ago we used to have to send lambs as stores down country. The export market is the best thing that ever happened," says John.

Breeding ewe lambs usually fetch between £25 and £30 a head at Tregaron. These are sold at weaning at the end of September.

And so the breeding year comes round again. Preparations for next springs lambing kick off with 100 rams coming down off the hill until they return to the ewes on Nov 5.

Attention to detail and good stockmanship are the basis for the viability of this hill farm. Although bureaucracy has an increasing hold, its intentions are environmental and subsidies received are ploughed back into the sheep.

But one piece of legislation which threatens to upset the equilibrium is the removal of compulsory dipping, which has coincided with the re-emergence of scab. Flockmasters across the country are reluctant to point fingers, so most see the reinstatement of compulsory dipping and notification as the only solution.

The Jones still plunge dip twice a year, at shearing and again on Oct 2. "The fact that we, who have been dipping sheep for years and years, now have to take an exam is diabolical. Surely just producing a receipt for dip bought should be enough, because nobody is going to spend money on dip if they arent going to use it," says Mr Jones.

"In fact, not only should compulsory dipping be reintroduced but the period should be extended from July to October. Before, the period only extended between September and October. Now there are fewer shepherds in the mountains there are not enough people to help get all the dipping done in the shorter time." &#42