Upland carbon and conservation management are best served in a nature-rich productive landscape, a key component of which is grazing of high quality livestock for food, says Dafydd Morris-Jones, farmer, translator, outdoor-instructor in climbing, caving (and more) from the Cambrian Mountains in Ceredigion.
“If we’re not careful, the winning narrative will be ‘this should all be trees,’” says Dafydd sweeping a hand towards the upland area, accounting for two thirds of his 160-hectare landholding. His land is two-thirds dominated by heather and whim, with areas of course montane grasses. The final third is un- and semi– improved acid grass and traditional hay meadows featuring some important indicator flora. He keeps over 500 Welsh Hill Speckled Sheep.
Today’s focus on carbon management and rewilding has tended to see this part of the Cambrian Mountains crudely earmarked for forestry. For over 6,500 years, mining – for silver and lead – and farming in tandem, have defined the area supporting a dynamic community, biodiversity and an effective machine for the carbon cycle. “High rainfall and the influence of the sea will not suit most trees, unless you plant a monoculture of spruce – and if you did, I’m not convinced of any benefit to either carbon management or ecology. Extensive grazing best mimics natural systems: a nature-rich productive landscape.” Successive agri-environment schemes have incrementally reduced livestock numbers on the hill – Dafydd’s view is that this had removed a vital carbon-management tool and opened the door for an invader, which damages blanket peat bogs’ critical carbon management capacity.
A 2018 carbon-footprint analysis of 21 Welsh upland farms has provided a reliable yardstick for Dafydd to apply the same measurements and constructively challenge the process. “When I compare, then add capacity for sequestration on top, I’m confident of carbon neutrality.” He says, “But I’m not sure I want to sell any carbon excess.” He points a finger at the petrochemicals industry for taking away two of the three staple farm product-streams: fibre and fuel. “We should not become the excuse for them.”
Dafydd is sceptical about what’s further thrown up about the benefits of afforestation for carbon management and rewilding. “There are significant blind-spots in most of the academic data surrounding upland land-use. There are few meta-analyses, but very little core-data – and what there is, is dated, flawed, insular and derivative of the same research.” He adds, “Anything that’s happened since the 1980s hasn’t really been captured.”
Plenty has happened. Dafydd (39) joined his mother, Delyth, in farming here following experience as an international logistics consultant for humanitarian aid, a Welsh translator. He’s also a qualified caver, climber and mountain leader. The latter skills provide three-dimensional insights into the mountain’s geology and structure in managing water. He points to ecological ancient bog on a hanging valley: this, he’s proved, working with archeologists, is artificial, but several millennia old. “Its’ leats fed hillside mines and farms.” This knowledge combines with Dafydd’s passion for the sustainable future of the mountain.
“We’ve had afforestation before: this is one of a handful of farms from the Hafod Estate, broken up in the last century, which is not under spruce. All the promises of a sustainable revolution through afforestation never arrived and we saw a massive loss of community. Upland trees grow slowly, never reach a reasonable height or girth, and they remove useful carbon capacity from peat soils. Reaching today’s carbon and conservation goals means managing productive systems which are carbon neutral and ecology-enhancing.” Dafydd adds, “Natural systems in any upland area are limited by their productive capacity. The effect of predators is to change flock behaviour rather than numbers – including grazing-behaviour, and this in turn can influence new priorities such as carbon management.” Dafydd has examined the widening ungrazed areas on the plateau. Here he’s concerned about the encroachment of molinia – a hard purple-headed moor grass. “Look at this,” he squats in front of a mossy tussock. “Soil-depth is only about 8 inches, so what goes-on biologically happens in a narrow band. Molinia pushes up the sphagnum by 8-12 inches; the moss dries and dies, eliminating its cherished carbon and water managing capacity. Molinia’s taking over. It can be grazed by soft-palated stock in the spring and early summer only. It’s an indigenous plant, but its encroachment is a climate-change indicator.”
Stock management is the solution. “Now look over there. I had my heart in my mouth when – on-paper - I started to ‘over-stock’ that valley some years ago. In fact, the higher stocking-density has improved its productivity in all measures. I’ve learned it’s not about stocking density, it’s about management – it’s about movement of the flock: active shepherding.” Dafydd continues, as things stand, I’m limited to just 46 ewes on an 82 hectare mountain. Their behaviour is to graze what their palates can stand within established paths. In the past we were able to put the stronger whethers on the mountain – and they would break through the tougher forage and create more grazing areas for the ewes to follow.” Dafydd says, “If you’re fighting molinia with ewes alone, it’s a losing battle. The result is - that an upland productive unit of 82 hectares - incrementally shrinks over time.”
Dafydd himself fought for the rare breed registration for the Welsh Hill Speckled Sheep. “I breed them hard for the mountain, but the carcass-size is increasing. Traditionally this breed is a wool-producer, meat being a by-product.” The wool is low in kemp making it a high quality fibre. Dafydd himself eschews synthetic fleece: a “theft” to farming and carbon-management by petrochemicals, sudden and insidious, in the late ’70s.
The new farming schemes in England and Wales offer an opportunity to redefine and support upland farming. Forestry might be a solution in some places, driven by wider aims. Dafydd is passionate that the Welsh Government at least needs to focus on the eclectic benefits of nature-rich productive agriculture on the hills. He would see foundational farm support and outcome-focused agri-environment schemes working together to provide a resilient future for people and ecosystems. “An essential outcome must be the regeneration of moorland habitats and maintenance of the carbon and water management system through control of molinia-cover. Livestock can play a vital role as part of this system – not despite it. Dafydd takes lissom strides down through the tussocks, plucking and pinching whimberries to his lips as he descends. The message is that upland land management is grossly underestimated – and a yearning opportunity.