The environmentally sustainable livestock farms of Wales are being unfairly demonised

Picture by Osian Hedd Harries

Osian Hedd Harries

As a livestock farmer it feels as if our industry is under siege at the moment, with daily warnings in the press about the horrors of the industry – from the environmental impact to the well-being of the animals themselves.

This anti-farming sentiment is a particular concern in Wales because of the impact it could have both on the nation’s agriculture industry but also our culture and language.

80% of agricultural land in Wales is unsuitable for arable crops, so if it isn’t used for livestock there is little other economic use for it. Only 5% of the sector’s output is made up of crops, and the rest of livestock and livestock products, compared with 33% across the UK.

And according to the 2011 census, half the agricultural workers in the country speak Welsh, which is far beyond the national average of 17% and greater than any other sector.

It is no wonder that Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh language society, has committed to supporting Welsh farmers against a no-deal Brexit.


The agricultural sector in Wales should be at the heart of Welsh Government plans to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050.

But as an enthusiastic Welsh independence supporter, farmer and butcher I fear that anti-farming sentiment could lead to the destruction of our language and make independence less viable as it fatally weakens a key Welsh industry.

The problem when people hear stories about the environmental impact of livestock farming is that it’s farming elsewhere that’s being discussed. It’s impossible to compare the environmental sustainability of small, family-run Welsh farms to the huge agricultural farms run by the barons in places such as South East England.

With average herd sizes in Wales significantly smaller compared to the rest of the UK, we should be looked upon as an example of sustainable farming rather than an enemy to the environment.

The average farm holding is much smaller than other UK countries at 48 ha (hectares), compared to 107 ha in Scotland and 88 ha in England. In addition to this 54% of Welsh holdings are smaller than 20 ha.

There is also evidence that forage-based livestock, as opposed to the grain and other feedstuffs, is better for the environment because the soil captures carbon.

It’s difficult to understand therefore why our low intensity, family-run farms in Wales are being compared with the humongous farming estates in England.

Culprit

Two weeks ago the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that sustainable livestock production similar to many low-intensity systems found here in Wales can be very much part of the solution to climate change.

Quoted in this story is Dr. Prysor Williams, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management at Bangor University. He says:

“There are ways in which Welsh farming can become even more sustainable, but it’s important to recognise that not all production systems are the same. In Wales, sheep and beef farming are largely low in intensity. Natural pasture grazing produces most of the food that the animals need, while also helping to capture carbon if managed effectively.”

IPCC also states that making the most of this land and efficiently turning pasture into protein can be an important part of the balanced diet the worldwide population desperately needs.

There is also a danger that we overstate the environmental impacts of farming in order to shift the blame off other human activities. Just this summer new research suggested that cows did not cause global warming, and that the suggestion was an attempt to deflect attention from the real cause, which was burning fossil fuel and fracking.

“This discussion is the cornerstone of debunking all of this hype around why we should eat less animal-based protein,” Frank Mitloehner, professor of animal science at UC Davis in California, said.

“Never have we had smaller flocks and herds than we do today, but we are producing the same amount of meat.”

No farmer has a problem with care for the environment, concern for climate change, or people being encouraged to turn to a vegan diet.

However, when these things are promoted in a misleading or in an unfair manner, or as propaganda to deflect attention from the real culprits elsewhere, our reaction is going to be different.

Being passionate about what you personally believe in and portraying an entire industry unfairly are two very different things.

The onus is on farmers as well, however, to do a better job of informing the people of Wales about the realities of farming in this nation. There has been a growing disconnect between consumers and where their food comes from.

In Denbighshire, farmers have formed FCE (the Farm and Countryside Education Group) in order to educate people about food and how its produced.

The problem, as always in Wales, is that the facts people received are based on what is going on elsewhere.

It only strengthens the case for devolving broadcasting to Wales, so people can discover that livestock farming is quite different here, rather than basing their opinions of the farms of England.

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Huw DaviesRhosdduCapMRichard PenderynAnn Owen Recent comment authors
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Chris Lewis
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Chris Lewis

Diolch Osian – a useful insight.

Melindwr Williams
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Melindwr Williams

A really interesting read, and a timely defence of low-impact agriculture. I recently walked between Whitland and St David’s over seven days, and the farmed landscape was certainly beautiful. We walked mainly through smallish fields supporting cows, with sheep on the more open, higher ground. Look more closely, though, and those fields, green as they are, don’t support much in the way of diversity because they’ve been re-seeded and treated with fertiliser. I know that farmers are under pressure to put production first, but are there opportunities to encourage farmers to look at re-wilding meadows and hedgerows by changing their… Read more »

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

In the past wild daffodils use to edge Welsh fields….now no longer

Edward clarke
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Edward clarke

Yes, grass fed cattle are good for the environment. My understanding is that family farms are rapidly disappearing. Dairying is deemed not profitable with less than 500 cows. On a map produced by national resource Wales it shows that the highest concentration of pollution of rivers by farm slurry is in west wales. This is a mix of devastating slurry pit leaks and slurry spreading in wet weather and on land too steep and near water courses. Restrictions on slurry spreading are coming in this winter and fines for slurry pit disasters are supposed to be so high they will… Read more »

David Williams
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David Williams

We are a small nation do not draw a line with offas dyke we are all facing the same problems .
The vegans are demonising farmers are they going to graze permanent pasture themselves ?
If they plough them up to grow there vegetables they will release carbon and without manure from livestock the soil would soon become poor .
Why does no one promote the positive effects of crop rotation and mixed farming .
D L Williams

David Williams
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David Williams

Sustainable farming

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

Looking at farming at a global scale I can see hydroponics arriving if we have the reource efficiencies with new technology…that would negate a lot of farming land needed ….. but I take your prior point.
There are a lot of flaws to raising only livestock .. not just ethical , but energy efficiency related

Jen Davies
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Jen Davies

A few questions Osian:

Where are your sources re 80% of land being unsuitable for arable?

Why are you quoting Scottish land use report regarding crops? The actual figure in Wales is 0.5% which is abysmal (considering as you suggest, it could be 20%)
https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Agriculture/Agricultural-Survey/Annual-Survey-Results/crops-in-hectares-by-year

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

Historically, Welsh land up to 2000 feet was used to plant crops….however fertility rates declines the higher elevation, soil type and latitude among other factors…..so its possible to grow potatoes and wheat at 1000 feet in some places

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

The only thing I would disagree with here is the assumption that small scale family farming is safer in the EU. All the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. EU subsidy culture has lead to the almost total destruction of a once thriving apple orchard industry in southern England. The ongoing encroachment of Agro-Business absorbing and liquidating small farms will only increase under the EU. Greater local control of the food industry operating in Wales is essential for sustainable family farming and healthy local produce being available.

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

EU is at its “happiest”, i.e most comfortable, dealing with corporate entities. Small businesses, including farmers, are at best a bit of an irritant. They could have modified the ridiculous CAP years ago by restricting eligibility for payments to a threshold level. But they chose not to do so because it would have denied payments to those “big boys” that they favour so much.

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

same can be said about the UK …. Im in East England and the small farmers have gone replaced by a new aristocracy farming class

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

As I recall the UK were one of the leading advocates for not having an upper limit on beneficiaries thus safeguarding the interests of the seriously wealthy landed class.

Karl Fogg
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Karl Fogg

The largest and most recent studies into the environmental impact of livestock farming concluded that the hypothesis that the sequestration of carbon in soil by grazing animals did not provide any environmental benefit. In fact, both studies, involving over 40,000 farms all over the world including small scale farms concluded that even when they subtracted the amount of pollutants sequestered into the land from the amount of pollutants emitted, the result was a significant net contribution to environmental damage. In other words , the pollution produced was more than that stored. Worse still, over the course of these studies ,… Read more »

Ann Owen
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Ann Owen

I wonder what we’ll be allowed to eat – e.g. rice paddies are now said to produce as much methane as ruminating cows! Going vegetarian/vegan doesn’t seem to provide the answer either. Judging sustainable pasture Welsh farming by applying findings from “all over the world” to our specific small-scale context is less than helpful. Not all farming “all over the world” is done in the the same way or under the same conditions. Obviously we can always learn in Wales and elsewhere, but Welsh farming should also be recognised for its models of sustainability.

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

for good or bad…the biggest impact we have in the “western world” is having children …. but few dare talk about this – we are gluttons out here.
India (as much as I dislike their authoritarian gov) has 16 times the population of UK yet only consumes 4 times as much as UK

Douglas Lloyd
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Douglas Lloyd

Whole heartedly agree with this article, I work within the nature conservation sector in Wales and sustainable farming of sheep and cattle in Wales is the main reason why large parts of our landscape still have reasonable wildlife populations as opposed to more intensively farmed land in the lowlands of england

CapM
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CapM

Most lowland grassland in Cymru is not that far off being a monoculture of a nitrogen dependent grass variety. Climate, topography and soil type and economics predominantly determine how agriculture is practiced (everywhere) rather than any choice by Welsh farmers to farm less intensively and so limit their income compared with farmers in the lowlands of England. To me there seems to be levels of delusion or denial on both sides of the argument. Re-wilding is going to become a big issue in Cymru I think and the main reasons are that we’re “easy meat” with cheap land compared to… Read more »

Richard Penderyn
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Richard Penderyn

I believe in strong farming or how else do we eat to survive …. but the environmental impact depends on many factors, especially stocking densities in Wales. Sheep farming is less biodiverse than cattle farming due to the fact that sheep are close grazers. For example, huge swathes of mid Wales are biodiverse deserts which have trouble retain carbon in peat like soils due to overgrazing in recent decades. Also I have seen very important ancient oak woods dying needlessly as the farmers allow many sheep to eat on the replacement seedlings in the wood …. this is like killing… Read more »

Rhosddu
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Rhosddu

Slurry run-off and low carbon capture may well mean that Welsh farmers are partly responsible for some environmental degradation in Cymru, but the answer is not to diminish Welsh agriculture (which is vital to Wales’s economy) and replace it with ‘re-wilding’. The solution is to set standards of environmentally safe farming backed up by legal penalties. Projects such as ‘Summit to Sea’ and ‘OnePlanet Wales’ are sinister operations that will encourage unwanted human settlement on isolated rural areas, chip away at Welsh-speaking communities, and give a massive boost to tourism as the only viable economic sector – which is the… Read more »

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

Smart young ( and not so young) things working out their fashionable theories at the expense of rural communities is just another strand in the historic pattern of colonialism. The fact that these people are also trying it on in areas like Cornwall, Cumbria and other parts of England doesn’t excuse it at all. I trust that English farmers and rural communities, just like the Welsh, will give then short shrift. Our weakness here in Wales is that the Cynulliad’s anxiety to embrace any “modern” thinking regardless of its quality drives it to align with grasping schemers like those behind… Read more »