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The golden hills of Wales


How wilderness gives Wales a future.


Adfyd a ddwg wybodaeth, a gwybodaeth ddoethineb 


(Adversity brings knowledge, and knowledge–wisdom)—Welsh proverb 


In most areas of Britain, democracy holds sway. We might not like our politicians but we can vote them out. We may not have full democracy, voting for each issue, but we have broad democracy that’s kept us from extreme forms of government for hundreds of years and ensured centuries of continuous improvement. 


So what happens in a democracy when sharing breaks down? 


Our country gets poorer. Poorer economically, poorer socially, poorer environmentally. So let’s talk about a situation where sharing isn’t working. Let’s envisage a situation where one industry–a respectable, hard-working one–has, because of market forces, fallen into terminal decline over more than a century. It contributes 0.7% to its nation’s economy. It employs a little under 1.9% of its country’s population. Yet, in spite of all this, this industry occupies 88% of the land surface of the entire country. 


Without taxpayer-funded support, which gives the industry’s workers up to 80% of their income, the average business, according to industry insiders, would now earn just £ 2,600 per year. 


This enterprise works hard, but it’s not a business by any recognisable standards–nor proportional to the country that it occupies. Welcome to livestock farming in Wales. 

For any analyst, an agricultural sector that contributes 0.7% to a country’s economy and employs 1.9% of a its population, dominating nine-tenths of its land, on 80% public subsidy, is a recipe for no rural future in that country at all. Eighty-eight per cent of Welsh land (17,530 square kilometres) is given over to agriculture, of which 75% (13,260 square kilometres) is sheep pasture, containing 9.6 million animals. Those sheep occupy an area almost twelve times the size of Greater London. 


Whilst arguments are made that sheep farming makes Britain more self-sufficient, this has not been true for quite a while. In 2012, Britain exported 94,700 tonnes of sheep meat, and imported 86,100 tonnes. Three-quarters of this came all the way from New Zealand. In 2013, the UK was the second largest importer of sheep meat in the world. 


Whilst farmers have, overall, been given special status with subsidies because they produce our food, only 1.2% of the calories in the British diet now come from lamb. 


Lamb is an enjoyable but entirely optional food source. Red meat consumption is nationally on the decline, partly for cultural reasons, but partly because of scientific worries that its consumption increases the risk of certain cancers. 


A better arrangement is required not only for wildlife to return to Wales, but for its rural jobs, even a generation from now. But surely, without farming, the nation would collapse? In centuries past, that was most certainly the case. Now, through no fault of Welsh farmers, the times have changed. An honourable decline During past centuries in Wales, sheep once powered a nation. At the start of the nineteenth century, in 1801, the majority of Wales’s 587,000 people were still rural-based and working in agriculture. 

This itself was the end result of a lucrative wool trade in earlier centuries. As early as the twelfth century, Cistercian monasteries had been granted special rights to graze sheep, and the country’s woollen industry sprang from the enterprise of monks. Water-powered mills turned wool into one of Britain’s first mass industries. Between 1350 and 1500, around fifty fulling mills, where wool cloth was beaten with wooden hammers to form finer cloth, became serious business in Wales. In 1372, the mills of the southeast produced 18,500 fleeces in one year. By 1660, wool made up two-thirds of all Welsh exports. 


From 1800, towns such as Welshpool began to industrialise–but new technologies were not properly routed across to Wales from the modernising industry in England. Weaving towns in Montgomeryshire, for example, only had four power looms by 1835, at a time when Bradford and Leeds were already thriving on steam. In winter, Welsh farmers employed their labourers in spinning, but Welsh wool was never really brought into the industrial era. Most wool manufacturing declined in Wales by the 1860s, and weaving did well until the 1920s. By 1947, there were 24 active mills. By 2013, there were nine. 


This decline has since been mirrored in sheep farming as a whole. Before 1900, the original nomadic sheep-farming traditions had already been replaced with large, enclosed farms. In 1851, 18% of the Welsh population still worked in agriculture. That has fallen, across 150 years, to just over 1% today. 


As early as the 1850s, labourers were also moving to the cities, beginning a 160-year narrative of rural evacuation. Large numbers of nomadic shepherds once wandered the Welsh hills, moving with their flocks. Today’s large farms employ fractions of the pre-Victorian workforce. Yet even now, almost nine-tenths of the country is dedicated to an industry that, economically, is no longer alive, yet demands enormous monies from others to survive. Upland farming is up against a narrative of decline centuries long, and so resisting further change seems the obvious and natural thing to do. But vanished shepherd cultures, unlike ecosystems, cannot be restored. 


Restore woodlands and wildlife, and nature falls back into its rhythm. You cannot, however, take people from cities and employ them in occupations that belong to the past. You cannot keep 88% of a country’s land area on subsidies indefinitely, propping up jobs like roles in a museum. This, in truth, is disrespectful to everyone–not just to British taxpayers but to younger farmers too. Today, the culture of sheep farming is a culture endemic to the 1.9% of Welsh people who still practise it, and that number continues to fall. For sheep farmers, however, hill farming is the profession that they know. 


Suddenly, in their eyes, the economy and the environmental movement have both turned against them. They do not wish to see a long tradition in the hills vanish, and understandably struggle to envisage a future beyond the life they know. So why do those in the ecological movement push so strongly for change? One answer lies in the devastating silence of Welsh wildlife–the other, in the growing silence of its dying rural communities. Let’s look at the wildlife first. 


Feeling sheepish Choughs are what would happen if you took your local crow to a stylist. How they remain glossy and sleek in the face of Welsh weather is a mystery. Their coastal grass is no longer cropped by wild horses, but choughs now probe for insects with their curvy bills and dig for victory in the wake of sheep, which, on these wind-battered coasts, function in a similar way to horses. Conservationists have become accustomed to adapting bird protection to the presence of sheep. If you watch cheeky wheatears foraging on the Pembrokeshire coast, or choughs searching coastal lawns for food, it’s clear that our coastal grasslands are one area where sheep can form a more natural part of the picture. Remote from the gardens of lowland England, ring ouzels, our mountain blackbirds, are birds of upland lawn. On their barren rocky slopes, ouzels hide their nests in heather but forage for food in mountain pasture: grass once kept low by horses or elk–and today by sheep. Studies in Scotland show that having the right amount of sheep is now important if you’re going to get your lawn–heather balance right. 


Too few sheep, and your pasture can be swallowed by heather. Too many sheep, and your heather is munched away–so too are your berry-rich plants, essential for young ouzels to feed in. Lapwings are waders of soggy pasture. Sheep are selective feeders that avoid coarse vegetation, leaving open lawns for lapwings to feed, but some taller cover for chicks to hide in. If you travel to places like the Outer Hebrides, you can often find tiny sheep-fields alive with starlings and lapwings. Add a few more sheep, however, and things get worse. Dead stock, afterbirth and supplementary feeding draws in buzzards, crows and foxes. These prey on lapwing eggs and chicks, finding these by sitting on sheep fences. So only on rushy, low-intensity sheep farms, like some of those seen in some parts of the Yorkshire Dales, can birds like lapwings really thrive. These rare cases, where sheep-grazing can directly benefit birds, are exceptions to the general rule. And in truth they represent species finding new ways to scrape by. Increase the number of sheep, and almost all the sheepish birds will vanish. And not one native British species has evolved under the stewardship of sheep. 


Recently, hen harriers on Orkney surged back when sheep numbers were reduced. Too much grazing of heather, and ring ouzels vanish. Only extensive grazing, by tiny flocks, benefits the black grouse. 12 Overgrazing, as a whole, removes the nuances of nature. In Wales, this problem has now occupied a country–and created a landscape unintelligible to most native wildlife. 


The silent hills Being, originally, agile specialists of mountain slopes in the far southeast of Europe and the Middle East, sheep don’t increase our native tree and plant diversity as our native herbivores once did, but actively degrade and prevent it. This is because their manner of feeding is alien to British grasslands, being evolved in a sparser and rockier world than our own. Cattle, by comparison, are unselective grazers, tackling vegetation tufts with their tongues. In natural densities they do not deplete nectar sources. They also avoid areas of their own dung, and these fertilised mini-grasslands grow longer as a result, creating variety in the grass, whilst dung recruits up to 200 species of invertebrates. 


Horses, more selective than cattle, create a mixed grassland, nibbling down some rough grasses, whilst others are left–creating a mosaic habitat for grassland birds. Sheep, by contrast, whilst often seen as rugged animals, are surprisingly fussy in their eating habits. Rather than promote insect life, they remove nectar sources for invertebrates. They create a tight, uniform lawn, leaving the least tasty elements of a hillside, bracken, last. Sheep also produce a great deal of soil compaction. What remains, therefore, is a nectar-free lawn, often interspersed with the least valuable of all vegetation: ferns. No ecosystem can build from such a basis. 


As a result of this playing out both in penned farmlands and across supposedly ‘wild’ landscapes like Snowdonia, Wales is now largely a country of two alien extremes: deep green forestry and pale green sheepery. Almost all native Welsh ecosystems now exist as remnants, scattered between these two shades of green. If this sounds unfair, satellite mapping will again provide the evidence. 

Here, on very close inspection, between the two seas of green, you can discover the postage stamps of gnarled Atlantic oakwoods. There are clear smaller rivers, with goosanders and otters; rock faces, with ravens and peregrines; and just a few birch moorlands, in north Wales, that still bubble with black grouse. Where human agency falls away at the coast, we have our wonderful seabird cities offshore. And that, really, is that. In the entirety of Wales, fewer than 600 pairs of curlew survive,  compared to 68,000 in Britain as a whole. 


Curlews have declined in Wales by up to 80% in just the last fifteen years. Of Britain’s 5,000 black grouse, just over 300 are found in the uplands of Wales. 14 Of Britain’s 500 pairs of golden eagle and 100 or more pairs of white-tailed eagles, not one soars over its mountains. 15 The story of silence goes on and on. 


A recent State of Nature Report found that of 3,128 species of plants and animals in Wales, 60% have declined over the last 50 years, with 31% of these declining strongly and one in ten facing extinction. 16 The green shades of upland Wales may now constitute one of the most bird-free areas in Europe. It is hard to imagine an emptier area for wildlife. 


This comes down, in turn, to total trophic collapse. Right now, the upland estates of rural Scotland and northern England, for all the issues outlined in this book, still contain rushes, mosses, heather and other plants from which some kind of food chain can build. Small insect communities exist to feed wading birds such as curlews. From this damaged but persistent food chain, species like grouse and hares feed, in turn, the Highland’s golden eagles. 


By contrast, compacted lawn, covering enormous areas of western Britain, creates the greatest wildlife silence of all, one we have grown accustomed to over time. In all truth, most of Wales is now, in one form or another, lawn. If the ecological assessment of the country cries out loud and clear for change, considering the human impacts of rewilding is every bit as important. If large areas of Wales were to be restored to a more natural state, what would this mean for its rural communities? 


Facing up to the future 

Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau 


(Starting the work is two-thirds of it)—Welsh proverb Rural communities are the backbone of Wales. Far more than sheep, it is cohesion and common purpose that rural Welsh communities fear losing the most if things were to change. When words like ‘rewilding’ become so toxic that large charities, such as the National Trust, dare not mention them in Wales, it’s clear that a war, a fairly heated one, has begun. On the one side, those who wish for wildlife, ecosystem restoration, carbon absorption by woodlands, or a diversified rural economy in Wales, find themselves paying taxes to keep hill farming alive. 


They express frustration when farming claims to be a culture beyond reproach, stifles the return of profitable wildlife and jobs–and yet relies on the taxes of others. In a democracy, taxpayers are entitled to ask for change, especially if their hard-earned money is on the line. On the other side, sheep farmers, just as understandably, are sceptical that ecosystem restoration could benefit their way of life. Most farmers I have spoken to believe, in good faith, that somehow, in spite of being reliant on subsidy, hill farming will find some way to survive. 

They fear for the future of the next generation, and the wider social collapse that would happen if farming vanished. The problem is that social collapse is already under way, and has been for over a century. With Wales having seen the collapse of community industries like coal-mining in recent decades, however, fierce protection of its remaining ones has understandably sprung to life. But with sheep farming on taxpayer life support, looking to other rural futures would seem a good idea for everyone. When the next subsidies come along, they will most likely be paid with British taxes alone. 


In Wales, some taxpayers may, through cultural or family ties, be sympathetic to sheep farming. But few will want to pay, collectively, billions of pounds for 1.9% of the people of Wales to use 88% of its land. In January 2018, it was intimated by the UK government that future subsidies will not only pay farmers for environmental services, but pay those farming against the odds–to stop. In Wales, most farming is conducted against such odds. Eighty per cent of the land is officially deemed unfavourable to farming.  A targeted, specific payment to wind down in certain areas would finally break a cycle of economic and environmental collapse for everyone in Wales. Farmers could be well incentivised to change course. Stopping would allow new rural economies a chance to establish over a period of time. Wales’s most depopulated spaces, where sparse sheep-grazing runs at an epic market loss, scream out the solution. 


In Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons national parks, true ecosystem restoration could take place. Other areas, virtually depopulated and making no significant agricultural contribution, such as the Cambrian hills, could also be incentivised to wind down. Few future Welsh politicians, realising the benefits of ecotourism, will want to see nine-tenths of Wales perpetuate one culture to the obliteration of all others. But no one I have met wants to see Welsh communities collapse–nor does the half-Welsh author of this book. 


So here’s how a wilder economy could benefit communities in Wales. Culture on the farms, nature in the parks The Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast, the three national parks in Wales, occupy a combined area of 4,095 square kilometres. Snowdonia, the largest, is an impressive 2,132 square kilometres. In a restored wooded state, Snowdonia is so large that it might hold up to 21 territories of golden eagle18 and 30 home ranges of individual lynx, 19 not to mention an ecosystem large enough to halt extinction in the many other Welsh species requiring smaller areas to survive. At present, however, whereas Germany’s national parks cover just 0.6% of its land area, but contain lynx, wolves and thriving ecotourism economies, Welsh national parks cover a fifth of its land, yet contain few ecotourism magnets that would be recognisable to visitors from another country. 


At present, according to a 2013 report, Valuing Wales’ National Parks, the majority of the ‘environmental’ jobs in the national parks are in ‘primary industries ... who derive their value from use of the environment’.  In other words, the only semblance of an environmental economy in Snowdonia, and the Brecon Beacons too, is a small number of people who harvest the park–like any other kind of farm. Few other countries’ national parks exist merely as scenic resources for extraction. Welsh ‘environmental’ jobs exist, at present, without a natural environment. They exist without Wales having a single charismatic predator or herbivore, or even more standard tourist spectacles such as eagles. 


If Wales’s national parks were replete with amazing animals, the requirement for rural jobs would be greater. An entire sector lies untapped. Right now, what’s more, the unemployment rate is higher in Wales than in England or Scotland: the number of people out of work is 76,000 and rising.  This is a higher number than all the people working in Welsh agriculture. Virtually none of these people can now move into farming. Whilst the farming lobby opposes ecological restoration at every turn, it has no solutions to unemployment. The wider interests of Wales would be served by more jobs–and in part, we must look to nature, not farming, to provide them. On Mull, 23% of the island’s 350,000 visitors cited eagles as a reason to visit, and Mull is far more inaccessible than the coasts or valleys of Snowdonia. On Mull, white-tailed eagles, or ‘flying barn doors’, have created 110 jobs in and around eagle tourism, in a sheep-driven economy deprived of opportunity much like upland Wales. 


Across a more significant area of land in Wales, the return of white-tailed eagles, in the lower valleys, wetlands and coasts, and long-overdue golden eagles, into the higher crags of the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia, might reasonably be expected to generate more jobs again. The allure of eagle watchpoints where viewers could, for the first time in centuries, watch golden eagles dance over Glyder Fawr, would create jobs not only for those directly involved, but in the accommodation, catering and wider tourism industries that arise around such spectacles. 


In 2015, 3.89 million tourists visited Snowdonia National Park.  If, as on Mull, 23% of these were drawn by eagles, and each of these spent £ 10 by visiting an eagle nest-cam, and bought a coffee and a sandwich, that alone would inject £ 8.9 million into the local economy. Of course, if we factored in just one overnight stay in a B& B for a third of these people, at no more than £ 40, we add another £ 11.9 million and our eagle expenditure in the local economy increases to just over £ 20 million. 


It is such simple calculations that remind us why rewilding Wales’ lifeless hills to even a moderate degree would be a good idea for everyone. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £ 1.4 billion per year and maintain 39,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs.  English tourists, who, of course, also visit Wales, spent an estimated £ 21.1 billion on their trips in the financial year 2013/ 14.26 


If the Welsh government considered a wild economy in Snowdonia, the only obstacle would be that 76% of it falls under agricultural land–but that land is unproductive, with just tiny flocks of sheep. Of 25,000 or so people living within the park, just 870–the equivalent of one person every 2 square kilometres–work in agriculture. This figure includes forestry and the fisheries, representing 7.2% of the jobs in the park. 


The number of farm workers in Snowdonia has fallen dramatically in the past fifty years. Fisheries jobs are not threatened by ecosystem restoration. Indeed, animals such as beavers increase fish stocks, by increasing spawning habitat. And you need more foresters, not fewer, to help in the restoration of oak forests. Only failing sheep farms prevent the thriving of a rural economy in Snowdonia. And with the economics as they are, the Welsh government might wish to think about what other jobs could be thriving here. 


Our quick-fire example of the potential value of eagles in Snowdonia really takes account of just a fraction of the economic benefits of a full wildland economy in fifty years’ time. Excluded, of course, are the villages secured against flooding with the restoration of native woodlands, which break and absorb the flow of water off the hills–and the incalculable cost of lives saved. 


Excluded are the full range of catering, accommodation and transport jobs that ecotourism provides. Excluded are the economic possibilities of other iconic species such as lynx. Excluded are the sales of prime wild meat and the jobs associated with its production. Excluded are attractions such as bugling elk ruts, or the potential of beaver-watching excursions. Excluded are the tens of thousands of visitor nights that slowly increase, each season, as more animals, worth travelling to see, make a return. In ecotourism economies, the ‘draw’ of people is far wider than in national parks with farming, even if farming unions continue to peddle the myth that farming creates some kind of mystical draw for tourists. 


For example, whilst a handful of local people may quietly appreciate a sheep being ‘hefted’ uphill in Snowdonia, you could poll the British public and not find one who has travelled to see such a sight. Many Welsh people I know have no idea what ‘hefting’ is. Once told, they do not drive 240 kilometres to see it. But 240 kilometres is the average distance that a British ecotourist travels to see Mull’s white-tailed eagles. Specific attractions like these act as catalysts for wider spending. If there is one thing I most emphatically believe in writing this book, it is that the best way for sheep-farming cultures to survive, in the future, is to exist alongside ecosystems and ecotourism, and benefit from their revenue–not to stand in angry opposition against them. 


Rural Wales lies in desperate need of jobs. Restoring Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, and returning at least two charismatic mammals, most suitably elk and lynx, would certainly drive unemployment numbers down. As a rule, the more visionary and exciting the venture, the more interest, money and jobs, are drawn to it over time. Younger people in rural areas, finding themselves without a farming future, yet loathe to abandon the land, could be paid incentives by the Welsh government to diversify. Communities would thrive. Extensively grazing native animals, increasingly seen as a key part of rewilding, would provide for the continued husbandry of livestock, albeit in a different way from that we see today. 


Wild national parks across the world benefit from the investment of their local people. Around the world, rural populations have kept their cultural traditions alive through increases in tourism. Perhaps, one day, our grandchildren might spend a morning in Snowdonia, learning to shear sheep in enclosures in the valleys, learning the importance of shepherding and all it did for Wales–then spend the afternoon seeking eagles, lynx or elk in the wooded hills above. It would still be the community-driven Wales of today, but the difference would be summed up in a single word–proportionality. 


Right now, there is none. Less than 2% of the population of Wales decides the odds for its entire landscape–and the rural future of everybody else–using other people’s money. Communities, grown reliant on subsidies for survival, will suffer more than most when, one day, the subsidy rug is pulled from under their feet by a government strapped for cash. Accepting wilderness in the parks, however, would be a gateway to the future. The living valleys In the end, only Wales can decide between farming for tradition’s sake and jobs that can support themselves. 


But, in my view, the future of rural Wales does not pivot on lamb meat. It hangs on community. Now that coal-mining has collapsed, nobody laments the coal. But to this day people lament the loss of shared values, cohesion and purpose in the valleys where coal was once king. In a century, the same could be true of sheep. Or, things could go a different way. For there to be a future in rural Wales, there have to be jobs–real jobs that markets demand, not that public benefit provides. 

Even if sympathies run high for livestock farms today, in fifty years’ time it might be asked how one loss-making concern was so keen to relive earlier times that it forgot about all the generations to come. It might be asked how, with ever-rising unemployment, future communities were killed off before they started by tiny lobbies of hill farmers. Yet the day, fifty years from now, that radio-tagged Wmffre the wolf gains followers on social media as he pads through the cwms of Betws-y-Coed, the day that songs are written about the tufted cats living like ghosts in the hills, may also be the day rural communities in places like Snowdonia are most likely to pulse once more with human life as well. And in a hundred years’ time, if that path is followed, nobody will lament the loss of villages and people in the valleys. 


The reason will be simple. 


This time, there will be nothing to lament.”


— Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict Macdonald

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