Sorcha Lewis is on the NFFN Steering Group for Wales, we asked her to tell us about her farm in the Elan Valley and share her thoughts on nature friendly farming…
Sorcha and Brian Lewis are third generation tenant farmers living at Troedrhiwdrain Farm with their two small children. Troedrhiwdrain (meaning ‘at the foot of the thorny bank’), is a 580ha family upland farm.
The Elan Valley located in Mid Wales is a mosaic of moorland, woodland and reservoirs held back by grand Victorian dams. The Welsh Water Elan Valley Trust is a charitable Trust which holds a 999 year lease over of much of the water catchment and are the landlords for the farming community that live there.
Over the last 10 years Brian and Sorcha have developed the productivity of the farm, whilst successfully retaining and incorporating many important habitats, including hay meadows, ffridd and rhos pasture.
Due to its location within the water catchment for the water supply to Birmingham, the farm has been managed as low impact for generations, with no inorganic fertilisation of the ground, just sheep or cattle manure. This careful management, along with the range of habitats, means the farm hosts a wealth of rare plants including various species of orchid, round leaved sundews, wood bitter vetch, mountain pansy and globe flowers.
A number of traditional breeds are used on the farm including Badger faced Welsh Mountain, Welsh Mountain and Herdwick sheep. Consideration has also been given to introduce cattle as a management tool for the rhos pasture to further benefit a number of species.
One valuable and increasingly rare habitat found on the farm are the traditional hay meadows, 97% of which have been lost across England and Wales since the 1930s. These help produce quality slow-grown lambs which feed on the herb-rich swards.
Sorcha and Brian manage the farm with nature in mind, creating habitats to benefit nature as well as the farm business; they have increased the area of ffridd found around the farm. Ffridd is a habitat found on the land between the enclosed fields and the open hill, typically steeply sloping and dominated by scrub, these areas are difficult to manage but provide an important wildlife habitat.
The Ffridd areas around Troedrhiwdrain are home to populations of declining bird species including ring ouzel, red grouse and cuckoo. They are also home to the Welsh clearwing moth which has been identified as a biodiversity priority by the Welsh Government, birch trees are being planted at Troedrhiwdrain to provide suitable habitat for this important population of these wasp like, day flying moths.
As well as maintaining and enhancing the existing habitats new habitats have been added including a pond which was created in 2005 which has already attracted priority species including water vole and otter.
Troedrhiwdrain is a fine example of High Nature Value (HNV) farming and highlights the importance of grazing for creating and maintaining valuable wildlife habitats in Wales. Agri-environment schemes can be an important means of support for this type of environmentally friendly farming and Troedrhiwdrain is currently included in the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme.
Sorcha and Brian are hoping to enter the new scheme Glastir Advanced, when their Tir Gofal scheme ends this year, so they can continue their excellent work and receive just reward for providing society with a wide range of environmental benefits in return for their publically funded agri-environment scheme payments.
Why do you support nature friendly farming?
Much of upland hill farming in this area has evolved within this beautiful yet remote (and sometimes harsh) environment. We have always worked within our constraints and for this we have seen many wonderful plant, insect and animal species. Many of these are rare and important to Wales and the UK.
We support wildlife friendly farming because we feel a responsibility to generations to come. Knowing what we have and how important it is means we feel a responsibility to share the diversity that is here in the Welsh uplands.
Nature friendly farming is important to the public. From protecting our pollinating insects to ensuring the public can enjoy and appreciate the landscape, these farming communities are making a positive difference and should be supported.
The food produced on this environment grows slowly, and profits are not as great when you farm these smaller native breeds. Yet their impact and relationship with the land can be so much more and that benefit is not often considered. I feel farmers who consider the environment should be rewarded and celebrated. Farming has often received a rather bad press, yet many farmers are protecting and managing our landscape.
What nature friendly farming approaches have you implemented on your farm?
We manage the land through our farm schemes: TirGofal and now Glastir. We have created hedgerows and a pond, managed the meadow, put up bird boxes and owl boxes, and managed the rhos pasture. We have held some open days for events about meadows, water voles and small mammals.
We have also undertaken work with the Welsh Government Nature Fund to promote the importance of farming and wildlife with our neighbour who was turning Molinia (purple moor grass) into biochar. We have grown some rare plants and hope to use these to get them back to areas where they have disappeared. We survey meadows each year to record the type and location of rare flowers.
What impact has this had?
The impact has been positive. While we do not collect data on this, we can say that we have had some new and exciting species in the last few years, which were never previously recorded on the farm, some of them rare. This includes the tormentil mining bee, the Welsh clearwing moth, and the small-white orchid.
As the farm is so wildlife rich we have led events and educated public about the value of meadows. We run biodiversity days, and aim to demonstrate just how much wildlife diversity can be found on a working upland hill farm.
What role do you see farmers playing in protecting nature?
Farmers have a huge role to play in protecting nature. There is a vast area of UK land which could be managed for food and for wildlife. There is potential for farmers to connect our landscape together, something which is increasingly important as it becomes more fragmented.
Why does nature friendly farming need government support?
Farmers are protecting water, by planting trees and corridors, creating species rich areas, protecting our upland bogs and being involved in rewetting projects.
Agriculture is steeped in the local community and history, creating the landscapes which are attractive to tourists. People come from a long way to walk, go to farm events and enjoy the environment.
There is such a variety in farming systems in the UK. We need support for the work that we do to address climate change, protect wildlife, ensure clean water and promote tourism. Smaller scale producers need help in promoting their products.
We also need help promoting unique British and Welsh products, demonstrating they are beneficial for the landscape, wildlife and people, as well as providing nourishing food.
People are engaging with the issues, thinking about the future and what is possible. Right now, people are asking questions and thinking about our whole environment. We need to say ‘this is important’ now, before we end up with policies which focus only on production and the economic benefits. Environmental benefits cannot always be valued economically.
What’s the biggest threat to British farmers post Brexit?
Brexit threatens upland farming by pushing us into a situation where young people are discouraged from getting into the business, and people abandon farms, because it is too difficult or the funding and support is not there. We need a vision everyone can work towards.
What’s the value of bringing farmers together in the NFFN?
By creating a network we can share knowledge, voice different opinions and share understanding of other farming systems. We want to show that there are farmers that really care about their environment. Together we can support each other and motivate each other to succeed, building a robust, nurturing and sustainable farming system in the UK.