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Rethink Farming - Ffermwyr yr Wnion

Ffermwyr yr Wnion is a group of ten farms, all located within the Afon Wnion catchment. Rhys Evans, one of the project’s farmers, shares the experience so far.

Key facts:

  • This landscape-scale project was set up in 2020 and aims to collaboratively address local issues of flood risk and water quality, and involves the Snowdonia National Park Authority and Gwynedd Council
  •  In Spring 2021, 3,725 metres of hedgerows were established around the 10 farms – equating to over 26,000 trees. By March 2022 a further 4,000m will be established, bringing the total number of trees planted close to 55,000.
  • This project delivers climate action through nature-based solutions that also benefit biodiversity recovery. Hedgerows provide necessary corridors of food, shelter and travel for wildlife, while flood pools support aquatic wildlife. Controlling non-native invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed, allows important riparian species to re-establish, whilst blocking man-made drains on upland peatland helps restore an extremely valuable habitat.

“The work being done by each farmer not only yields positive results for water and flood protection, but it also delivers benefits for biodiversity, pollinators, air quality and helps tackle climate change.”

 

Why is water something that concerns you as a farmer?

Farming in the hills of Meirionnydd has its challenges, not least due the high rainfall we receive. If there’s one thing that’s not in short supply on these hills – it’s water! Heavy rain brings heavy floods, which we know can causes damage to farm property, infrastructure, livestock, and of course, the farmland itself. This causes stress, extra work and affects the business’ bottom line. So of course, it’s in farmers’ interest to reduce flooding as much as possible to help protect their assets. Helping to improve water quality and reduce flooding is also important from a reputational perspective.

The Merrier Webster dictionary defines a farmer as “a person who cultivates land or crops or raises animals”. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s also a very narrow definition of what farmers do. We’re also land managers responsible for looking after around 80% of Wales’s land; and in doing so we can help deliver a host of environmental and societal benefits.

Being able to evidence and demonstrate these valuable services, such as improving water quality and natural flood prevention is incredibly important.  The agriculture sector faces criticism from multiple directions, and whilst some of this may be warranted (we don’t get it right every time) there’s a hell of a lot of good work being done out there that we should be immensely proud of.

 

How does Ffermwyr yr Wnion deliver for improved water quality and flood prevention?

In Spring 2021: around 3,725 metres of hedgerows were established across the 10 farms – equating to over 26,000 trees

By March 2022: a further 4,000 metres will be established, bringing the total number of trees planted closely to 55,000.

To complement this work, small areas of woodland, orchards and parkland trees will be planted – provided of course that they don’t threaten existing valuable farmland habitats and species. Tree and hedgerow roots run deep, allowing a larger, deeper area of the soil profile to retain water. This means that the ground can infiltrate water at a greater rate. Planting hedges along a slope can be a great way of reducing and capturing water runoff which would otherwise continue its journey downstream.

The project also includes a programme of work to restore peatland up on the hills – and we know that peatland store a load of water.  Healthy, intact peatland acts like a sponge, soaking up floodwater rather than allowing it to run off the surface.  However, historic man-made peatland drainage channels have reduced the peat’s ability to act like a sponge as they help facilitate the flow of water off the mountain. The project will therefore entail blocking these mand-made drainage channels, helping to slow down the flow of water downstream.

Numerous pools and ponds have also been created across the holdings, helping to store floodwater whilst also acting as sediment traps, which again helps prevent flooding and improve water quality. Likewise, intact peatland and hedgerows also help prevent soil erosion and stop sediment and organic material from reaching our streams and rivers, thus improving water quality.

However, this work not only yields positive results for water and flood protection – it also delivers benefits for biodiversity, pollinators, air quality and helps tackle climate change.

What are the benefits of these approaches, both in the short and long term?

A large portion of the work undertaken will take time to fully establish. Trees and hedgerows don’t mature overnight, therefore it will take time for us to truly appreciate the benefits of our approaches. However, we would expect to see short term benefits from wetland creation and peatland restoration, in particular a reduction in localised flooding as the land’s ability to absorb and capture water increases over time.  Long term, this will all help with climate change mitigation, as well as adaptation.  On a more personal level, the project also increases our sense of well-being as farmers – we take pride in knowing that our little corner of the world is helping to address some very serious issues.

What are the outcomes for nature?

Hedgerows provide a home, food, shelter and corridors to travel for wildlife.  They also provide food for pollinators throughout the year when crops aren’t in flower, as well as places to nest. Over time, we expect the flood pools will develop into fascinating ecosystems that will support aquatic wildlife, whilst controlling non-native invasive species such as Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam will allow native riparian species to re-establish. Bog specialist plants will recolonise along the restored peatland drainage channels, whilst pockets of woodland and scattered trees will attract a variety of wildlife.

Photos: planted hedgerows taken by Alun Elidyr

Are you able to measure the impact? If so, how?

Farmers are many things – but most of us aren’t expert hydrologists! It’d be great to be able to truly quantify the benefits of our actions in terms of water quality and flood prevention.  After all, management interventions should be led by evidence and science, therefore developing a greater understanding of how our actions benefit the environment can help inform future decisions.

Hydrologists, scientists, academics and the like are more than welcome to visit our farms for monitoring purposes.  A lack of monitoring has been a regular criticism of past agri-environment schemes. This means that many farmers are unaware of how their actions benefit the environment, and as a result, become disengaged with the whole process.  Training and support for self-monitoring would be most welcomed – it’s something we as a group might explore in the future.

What is the outcome for your farm business?

Our actions deliver win-win scenarios for the farm business and the environment.

Hedges aren’t only good for the environment, but they’re also reliable field boundaries. So they’re a big help in keeping livestock where they’re supposed to be – so there’s less time spent chasing rogue cattle and sheep!  They also offer shelter and shade for livestock, helping to boost productivity. It goes without saying that reduced flood risk will help protect the farms’ infrastructure, livestock and natural assets – saving time, money and effort.

Water shortage can also be an issue during hot and dry summer months – and climate change will only exacerbate this problem, with persistent extreme weather more likely in the future.  In the short and long term, our flood pools can become very valuable water sources during periods of drought.

Photo: Llyn Dolfelili taken by Kevin Davies

The work may also help our farm businesses prepare for and access future Government farming schemes and initiatives which are likely to have increased focus on environmental management.

What have been the biggest learnings and challenges?

Due to restricted and time-limited funding, some of us have had to curb our ambitions! As a group, there are lots of things we can do on our farms that fall under the remit of the project, however, we can’t do everything at once.

Finding the time to undertake the work can be a challenge as well. For example, it takes a lot of time and effort to establish hedgerows…it entails buying the material, preparing the site, and erecting double fences to prevent livestock from eating the plants. And let’s not forget the planting work itself. We plant at a rate of seven saplings per metre – one of the farms created around 1000m of hedgerows last winter – so that’s a lot of planting!

One of the biggest downfalls of the project is that whilst it generously covers the costs associated with undertaking capital works, there is no habitat creation/ management payment, and as such, the farmer isn’t rewarded fully for the time and effort that goes into planning and implementing the work. Some of the farms are fortunate enough to have sufficient hands-on-deck to be able to undertake the work in house, whilst others have had to employ contractors to complete the work. For the latter, this means that there is very little or no profit for the farmer.  This is by no means a criticism of the partner organisations – we count ourselves fortunate to be able to partake in such a scheme – however future Government schemes must account for this and ensure that farmers are rewarded appropriately for their environmental management work.

What top tips would you recommend to another farm wanting to restore the natural environment?

  • Ask for advice – there’s no shame in doing so. There are numerous farm advisory groups and conservation organisations out there that would be more than happy to support nature-friendly farming initiatives.
  • Look for funding – there are various grants and support payments available for nature-friendly farming activities, but they’re not always well signposted.
  • The actions that we’ve undertaken for nature don’t hinder the farming enterprise – in fact, they benefit the business, livestock and the farm’s natural assets – which are of course very building blocks of food production. It’s easy to fall into the mindset that nature and food production are mutually exclusive, whereas in fact, they go hand in hand.

What would you recommend to someone who wants to work collaboratively with other farmers in a joined-up approach?

  • Go for it! There’s nothing to lose in coming together as a group of farmers to share ideas, knowledge and aspirations. Even better if there’s a cup of tea and cake involved…
  • We’d recommend a facilitator to coordinate projects. The Snowdonia National Park Authority have been excellent by providing suggestions and advice on what we can do, then arranging farm visits to ground truth some for these ideas – it’s been invaluable.
  • The Welsh Government funded Farming Connect programme offers funding to help set up farmer working groups, so there is support out there. We would call on Governments across the UK to offer such support as part of future schemes.

What support do you need from the government to continue farming collaboratively in a nature-friendly way?

One of the things that the Welsh Government can do to facilitate collaboration would be to include a bonus payment for farmers working together to tackle issues over the wider landscape. Wildlife, climate change, flooding and water quality issues don’t stop and start at farm boundaries – they’re issues that need tackling at a landscape scale.  Funding for facilitation support would also be beneficial in future Government schemes.

Alternatively, the Welsh Government could allocate money to organisations like Local Authorities, National Parks or AONBs to act as scheme administrators.  More often than not these organisations have trusted, local staff who have experience of working with farmers over larger areas. Based on our experience to date, it’s an approach that we would certainly advocate.

How do you think the government should support farmers in climate mitigation and biodiversity recovery?

The Government must make it easy for farmers to do the right thing.  Past agri-environment schemes have been overly prescriptive, with very little room for flexibility and adaptive management. Trust in farmers is key. For some farmers, climate change mitigation and wildlife management will be an unfamiliar concept – therefore the provision of advice and guidance along the way will be vital as well.

Most importantly farmers must be rewarded appropriately for the delivery of environmental benefits. Biodiversity, water quality, flood prevention and carbon sequestration – these are all things that society need and rely on.  However, they have no, or very limited, private markets for such services. As such it makes sense to use public money to pay farmers for delivering these valuable services. But this means investing in the farmer’s time, which might include planning, mapping, monitoring, undertaking capital works and ongoing management. It’ll be worth every penny.

What would your message be to the public to encourage them to support farmers’ delivery of climate action and nature recovery? 

As farmers, we hold the key to tackling the nature and climate crises. We don’t pretend to be perfect, but a word of caution – don’t believe every you read about farming. There’s a lot of great stuff happening out there – let us show you what we can do. And you can always join the Nature Friendly Farming Network to show your support!