Our farm is part grassland, part woodland and part a tangle of scrub between the two. From what we know of the farming history, most of the fields have been cattle grazed for at least sixty years and probably for a lot longer. One was cultivated in the 70’s and one was fertilised in the 80’s, but by and large the farm has been untouched by modern farming techniques.
As a result, the meadows and wet pastures are classic examples of the habitat and rich in wildlife. They were declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 2000 (see NRW’s website for all the paperwork on this). We are carrying on the grazing tradition, with a couple of Welsh Mountain ponies and a small herd of Welsh Black and Hereford beef cattle. These are moved around the farm according to season – they spend the winter on the higher, drier fields, then graze the wet grasslands in spring when the purple moor grass is at its most nutritious. Two or three of the meadows are shut up for hay during the summer, and the cows are back on the more fertile higher ground whilst they calve. Grass can be in quite short supply if hay-making is delayed, as we’re reliant on the regrowth of these meadows, together with the uncut parts of these fields, to see them through from late summer into the autumn. The fields see no artificial fertiliser, lime or herbicide, and receive muck only when we have a trailer load cleared from their barn or feed area. As a result, they are inevitably becoming less productive and more acidic. We’re now hoping that our harvest of wildflower seed will balance the declining income from cattle sales (issue 47 of Natur Cymru magazine carries an article by us on this subject).
Aside from the nineteenth century tithe maps we’ve not uncovered any historical information. However, the two central meadows ‘Upper Castle’ and ‘Lower Castle’ contain the vestiges of an Iron Age fort. It’s tempting to speculate that the field boundaries here are also ancient, or at least medieval, as the ’rounded rectangle’ shape would have been the most efficient to fence using cleft oak stakes or ‘pales’. Perhaps deer would then have been kept in association with the monastic farming that dominated the area in a post-medieval period. The wood-banks here carry some significant ash and oak trees (the oldest oak being approximately 300 years old), and an array of fungal riches. Much of the remaining scrub and woodland has developed relatively recently (perhaps in the last century) from areas which would have mostly been wet, heathy ‘moors’. The field name ‘Potato Hay’ for one small piece, together with the surprise appearance of the arable weed sharp-leaved fluellen in one woodland ride, suggests that at least some is derived from ground which has been cultivated in times past.
We carry out some fairly ad hoc underwood management, harvesting firewood for our own use and cutting a few ash poles, hazel stems or willow whips for building with. Scrub management is largely focussed on holding back the rampaging brambles. The thickets of these provide good cover for nesting birds, a great flow of nectar for the honeybees and some superb blackberrying, but left completely unchecked would soon advance across most of the fields. Cattle are sometimes turned into the woods in late winter when the hay runs out, where they browse on the ivy, holly and bramble. We have been known to climb trees and pull ivy branches down for them. Small wonder then that woodland historian George Peterken pointed out the parallels to the woodland management of those early Iron Age residents….