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  • Writer's pictureCarwyn Graves

How many cows in the hills?

At the crux of the current debate around upland land use in Wales is the

question of how much grazing the land can support; and at what cost. To

simplify and briefly rehearse a debate that has now raged hot for over a

decade since the publication of Monbiot’s Feral (2013), overgrazing of the hills

by sheep has resulted in overall low levels of biodiversity in much of upland

Wales. The land is being pushed to its ecological limits; at the same time, the

farming communities sustained by this land have also been pushed, over

generations, to their limits. (Given this fact, talk of ‘sheep-wrecked’ hills is

rude, unhelpful and blind to the wider food system politics that have driven

farmers and the land to this state of affairs.)

But to take things any further, important nuances around the type of grazing

(which species), the time of grazing (which season) and the density of grazing

(for which stocking rates are the common measure) that could lead to

meaningful nature recovery are key. In short, as a good exposition of rewilding

principles will outline, having a wide range of grazing mammals (including

heavy ones) roaming over larger areas of land at relatively low stocking rates is

very likely to result in an explosion in biodiversity. If these grazing mammals

are farmed animals – with humans playing the role of keystone predator –

then from a farmers’ point of view the cost of inputs needs to be low enough

to ensure that eventual output still returns a profit. Finding the sweet spot –

where the stocking rate is low enough to allow natural dynamics to reestablish,

but high enough to give farmers an income – would therefore seem an

important question for upland Wales.

Cultural history

The interesting thing* in our current slightly polarized Welsh context is that we

have a long history of precisely the sort of mixed, lower-impact grazing that

could allow nature to recover – with a strong, latent cultural memory of it in

our hills. The hafota or transhumance system of seasonally moving stock onto

upland summer grazing was in Wales until the 18 th century dominated by

cattle, with families moving with their livestock and womenfolk engaging in

butter and cheese making; the placenames that reflect this, from ‘lluest’ to

‘hafod’ and ‘llety’, still dot our landscape today. But sheep were also present,

alongside horses, pigs, goats and indeed iconic, lost wild mammals (both boar

and wolves have left a deep mark on Welsh myth, imagination and culture,

despite their extinction at human hands a few centuries ago).

These animals were the progenitors of today’s ‘rare breeds’; generally

traditional, hardy breeds of animal that were low yielding by today’s standards,

but endowed with strong natural instincts, hardiness and the ability to browse

and survive on comparatively scantier fodder. In the case of cattle, they were

the ancestors of today’s Welsh Blacks and Vaynol cattle, alongside other cattle

(dun cows, red cows and others of myth and medieval allusion). Denigrated by

the agricultural improvers of the 19 th century, Welsh farmers’ often stubborn

adherence to these breeds may well have been reflective of long and

sometimes bitter experience of the traits needed for survival in the hills –

resulting by accident in the preservation of breeds well-suited for low impact


Welsh Black Cattle in scrubland at RSPB Gwenffrwd Dinas Reserve (Image Credit: Kelly Thomas)

Stocking rates

As the Farm Wildlife alliance puts it in one summary that can stand for many:

“High grazing pressure over a prolonged period will reduce the abundance of

certain plants, alter vegetation structure and in time change plant

communities. Less palatable or unpalatable plants (e.g. mat-grass, wavy-hair

grass, purple moorgrass) may come to dominate vegetation in such

situations... High stocking densities during the summer months can result in

plants being unable to flower, reducing both pollen and nectar resources for a

range of pollinating insects and seed production…

Very low or no grazing over an area will allow taller and denser vegetation to

develop and herbs to flower and seed. If this is extended for a long period, it

can allow dwarf-shrubs to increase in extent and, in time, pockets of scrub

and woodland to form. This can create more varied structure and habitat

mosaics that benefit a wider range of species, such as nesting habitat for

merlins, black grouse and ring ouzels, and for adders and common lizards.”

They conclude that “sustainable stocking rates vary between 0.05 LU/ha

(livestock units per hectare) and 0.20 LU/ha, averaged across the year”,

where LU/ha stands for ‘livestock units per hectare’ (an adult cow over one

year amounting to one livestock unit.) This can be compared with the

lowland grazing standard for conventional dairy cattle in Ireland of 2.5 LU/ ha

and a conservation grazing standard for unimproved upland grassland in the

same country of 0.15-0.25 LU/ha. Data for rewilding projects is more

piecemeal, but at Knepp stocking rates average at 0.3 LU/ha, in recent work

in Sweden at 0.35 LU/ha and in the famed Dutch Oostvaardersplassen, rates

have run at the surprisingly high 0.8 LU (data from Natural Grazing, Rewilding

Europe: 2015). These latter examples are however lowland contexts, so for

our purposes should be regarded as marking the very upper bounds of

carrying capacity.

Stocking rates at Knepp Wildlands average at 0.3 LU/ha (Image Credit: Knepp Wildlands)

Medieval evidence

I touched on this in my recent book, Tir: The Story of the Welsh Landscape,

where I mention in discussions of the Carneddau in North Wales that:

“figures from the sixteenth century suggest that at the time the ratios

of sheep to cattle in these mountains stood at around 2.5 to one. A

generation earlier, the antiquarian John Leland had commented that

this part of Snowdonia also had an ‘abundance’ of deer – though these

were extirpated by the middle of the following century. Going further

back, royal records soon after conquest indicate that on some

mountain pastures in north Wales as many as 200 heads of cattle

were kept out grazing year-round, and not in summer only.”

The big picture holds, based to a significant extent on the data from

Aberconwy and other monastic holdings. They show a growth in grazing

pressure from the thirteenth through to the sixteenth century, quoted above.

We can drill into more detail on this by looking at some specific figures from

the 13 th century. Here, in a period when the population was growing and

every part of the country exploited for food and fibre, stocking levels on the

large Aberconwy holdings were 0.08 LU/ha (see Studies in Sheep Population and

Specific data are also available (in the same study) for the smaller area of

Cwm Clorad, above Llynnau Mymbyr in upland Eryri. Here, the Record of

Caernarvon in 1352 estimates the area of 1300 acres as being able to hold 40

cattle in summer grazing by the standards of the time. This gives us a stocking

rate of 0.08 LU/ha – precisely mirroring the near contemporaneous records

from Aberconwy. (It is worth noting that by the time we have data from the

16 th century, stocking rates on the same parcel of upland had increased to

around 0.24 LU/ha). More tentative analyses of wider stretches of upland

also give stocking rates – combining cattle with sheep – coming in for the

most part around 0.08 LU/ha (with more intensively worked holdings coming

out at 0.27 LU/ha).

These scraps of evidence are no more than that; but they are corroborated by

the wider pollen, legal and archaeological sources we can muster for land-use

on JSTOR ). And given the consistency of the returns, and the fact that medieval

charters and land-use documents were a well-established genre by the

period in question, we can deduce from these figures the shadow of what

seems to be an entrenched cultural practice around stocking density. Indeed,

the significantly higher figure for land managed by the Cistercians, reputed

for their shrewdness in the wool trade and newcomers to Wales in this

period, seems to confirm this deduction.


The relevance of these calculations, if as we hope they reflect the reality of

the time, is their tantalizing suggestion that a return to lower stocking rates

in the hills, with a greater preponderance of (native breed, hardy) cattle

relative to sheep, would only be a return to a pre-existing cultural norm. A

norm, moreover, that was only truly superseded by the interplay of forces

during the 19 th century’s era of rapid industrialization and global colonialism.

Slower maturing breeds of cattle raised on biodiverse pastures produce the

most wonderful meat, stock, milk and hides. The open question at this point is

how to make these lower stocking rates work economically for the family

farms that carry the land’s memory with them in upland Wales; the ones that

are up for the challenge. At the least, subsidy regimes should be calibrated to

compensate for the enormous wildlife benefits we should all expect from

these re-cattled uplands.

Carwyn Graves

Carwyn is a writer and broadcaster on food, nature and culture in Wales, based

in Carmarthenshire. His latest book, Tir is out now and features Tir Natur in its

final chapter.

*There is another interesting thing to note here; which is that media debate

aside, many farmers have been experimenting with native breeds, lower

stocking rates and low-input methods of making a living quite independently of

government policy – often to inspiring results.

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