Counting sheep is crucial for Welsh uplands

John Osmond calls for an in-depth look at the impact over-grazing is having across much of rural Wales

Reading through the Assembly’s Rural Development Sub-Committee’s report on the Future of the Uplands, published last week, one statistic leapt off the page. This was the size of the Welsh sheep flock, put at 4.7 million in 2006  and declining to 4.2 million in 2008.

I’ve taken a good deal of interest in sheep over the years, mainly because of the extraordinary rise in their numbers has resulted in the overgrazing of a good deal of upland Wales. From a low of 4 million in 1950 the size of the Welsh sheep flock rose to 8 million in 1970, 11 million in 1990, to a peak of 12 million in 1999, and then started declining to about 9.5 million in 2006.

These statistics were quoted by Tim Blackstock, the Countryside Council for Wales’s Head of Terrestrial Science Group, at an IWA conference on Climate Change and Welsh Habitats conference a few weeks ago. How come, therefore, the much lower statistic quoted in the Assembly’s Rural Development Committee report?

The answer is that Tim Blackstone’s figures are for the whole of Wales, while the Committee’s are for the uplands alone. Having said that, the uplands comprise the greater part of Wales. The main areas excepted are Anglesey, Llŷn, much of north-east Wales, the southern coastal belt, and most of Dyfed.

What the statistics mean is that overgrazing must still be a major headache for biodiversity in Wales. As Tim Blackstone puts it, “Despite the decline in sheep numbers we’re still concerned that the overall grazing levels are much higher than would be desirable for wildlife conservation.”

The impact is subtle and not obvious to the casual onlooker. Hence, overgrazing has not received a great deal of attention. In fact, most people are unaware of it. Nonetheless, overgrazing is bringing about major changes to the landscape and wildlife of rural Wales.

If their concentration is too high sheep progressively change the natural cover of the land. They eat and trample the heather until it disappears, to be replaced by coarse grasses and bare soil. You can sometimes see the impact vividly on a hillside where a fence carves a sharp divide between lightly grazed or ungrazed heath on one side and short grazed grassland on the other.

The heather that covered large areas of Wales, especially in the Brecon Beacons, the Elenydd region of southern mid Wales, Snowdonia, and the Berwyn Mountains in the north-east has now disappeared. Heather typically supports wildlife, a wide range of invertebrates and, of course,  birds.

Among the bird species most affected by overgrazing are lapwing, red grouse dunlin, golden plover, hen harrier, merlin, black grouse, and the short-eared owl. At the end of the 19th Century around 700 grouse would be shot on the glorious 12th on the Berwyns. Today there are fewer than 1,000 pairs in the whole of Wales.

And if the future of sheep farming in Wales, as reported by the Rural Development Committee, is anything to go by the outlook for our wildlife remains alarming. Evidence presented to the Committee by NFU Cymru and the Countryside Landowners Association referred to predictions that global food production will need to increase by 40 per cent by 2030 and by 100 per cent by 2050 compared with today’s levels. Both organisations saw an increased role for the Welsh uplands in food production as a result. The National Sheep Association also put forward the vision of the Welsh uplands supporting greater food production over coming decades:

“…some of the models currently being published indicate that there is a very real possibility that the Welsh uplands is one of the areas that will have to produce much more of the world’s food in 50 years time.”

Both the Countryside Council for Wales and the Welsh Government were more cautious in their evidence, stressing for example that the globalisation of agriculture through the World Trade Organisation’s steady removal of barriers to trade was bringing significant pressure to bear on Welsh farmers. The Welsh farming industry has difficulty in competing with the cost reductions that are taking place elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, the twin drivers of climate change and the global increase in population suggest strongly that in the medium to long term the Welsh uplands will become more competitive in these terms.

So the problems associated with overgrazing are destined to be with us for a long while yet. There is, of course, a balance to be struck between the economic needs of rural Wales, especially our farmers, and the desirability of sustaining and enhancing our biodiversity. At the end of the day bio-diversity is also an economic good, being among the main attractions for visitors to Wales not say the people of Wales themselves.

It would be good to see the Countryside Council for Wales producing an up-to-date analysis of how overgrazing is impacting on the Welsh countryside, suggestions for combatting it, and some scenario projections for the future depending on whether ameliorating policies are introduced.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

One thought on “Counting sheep is crucial for Welsh uplands

  1. I would respectfully suggest that Wales’ uplands are one of our greatest assets and also one of our most abused. Their potential for both increased carbon sequestration (through increased biomass activity – restoring woodland ecosystems, for example) and food/ energy production (through permaculture, for example) are enormous.
    Using this resource for meat production is chronically inefficient, dismal in terms of soil health and biodiversity and leads to water runoff/ flooding issues.

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