Farming News - Food production and looking after the environment goes hand in hand says North Wales farming family

Food production and looking after the environment goes hand in hand says North Wales farming family

A farming family from North Wales who are leading the way in looking after the environment and producing food, having recently undertaken extensive peatland restoration work on their farm in conjunction with Snowdonia National Park Authority and the Welsh Peatlands SMS project to develop the first Peatland Code project in Wales. 

The Roberts family, who have farmed at Pennant Farm, Llanymawddwy for several generations, keep beef and sheep, mainly hill ewes and some crossbreeds. A small suckler herd and crossbred ewes are also kept on the lowland and the family have diversified into holiday lets as well. There is a strong sense of responsibility when it comes to looking after the environment and creating biodiverse habitats, as well as producing food.

Taking their environmental ambitions forward, Farmers’ Union of Wales members Lisa and Sion Roberts, set in motion restoration works to re-profile and block the extensive complexes of hags and gullies across the Bwlch y Groes site, which were carried out by experienced peatland contractors at the end of the 2020 and start of 2021. 

It is estimated that over the next 35 years, the restoration of the site will halt the loss of 2,335 tonnes of carbon emissions equivalent, which roughly equates to the amount of carbon dioxide generated from burning 632* household tanks worth of oil. The emissions from degraded peatlands in the UK currently account for 4% of total national emissions, making peatland restoration of critical importance for national climate targets. 

Lisa Roberts, explains how the project came to life: “I was on maternity leave with our second child, and thought there must be something we can do with the peat we’ve got up on the mountains similarly to the woodland carbon code. I looked into it and found out that there was a project coming up with the National Park. It was the first of its kind and a pilot scheme. After a lot of research, we jumped at the chance and it went from there.Today, the 65.77 hectare peatland restoration project has been successfully completed here on the edge of Snowdonia National Park ” 

Running along the eastern edge of Snowdonia National Park, the project area sits within the Berwyn and South Clwyd Mountains, which, at 2,209 ha, is one of the largest areas of upland heath in Europe. The Bwlch y Groes peatland restoration site is a blanket bog situated on a large saddle (bwlch) west of Llyn Efyrnwy nestled between the Aran Fawddwy and the Berwyn mountain ranges in south Snowdonia. 

Lisa says: “We were really lucky in the support we had for this project because we had the National Park, they were part of the project and wanted it to work. We were supported all the way from the start - getting the funding, starting the restoration to selling the carbon credits. My main concern is that the general farmer, who doesn’t have the support from a National Park, would find selling the carbon credits more difficult. It’s new territory. You need to make sure you get it right if you want to get that carbon funding at the end. It has to be validated and you’ve got to look after it for at least 30 years. It’s a big commitment but achievable with the right support available.”

Funding to deliver the project has come from a combination of support from Welsh Peatlands Sustainable Management Scheme (SMS) and funding from the Welsh Government’s Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme (2014 -2020), alongside carbon income from the sale of carbon credits. 

The area supports the most extensive tract of near-natural blanket bog in Wales and is the most important upland in Wales for breeding birds, supporting a wide range of internationally important species. The project site lies within a number of designated SAC, SPA and SSSI areas. As well as halting the loss of carbon from the site and protecting the significant store of carbon in the peatland, it is anticipated the restoration works will have wide spread co-benefits as such improved water quality, steadier water flow, increased biodiversity, and improved habitat conditions for freshwater invertebrates. However, it is not a call for the removal of livestock from the mountain.

“Livestock farming and looking after the environment go hand in hand here. We’ve had sheep and cattle here on the mountain. They are a vital part of keeping the biodiversity flourishing here on the hill. I don’t want to think about what it would look like if they weren’t here, it would be very much a monoculture. It’s about managing, not overstocking. We need to manage what we’ve got and manage it well to promote that biodiversity on this hill. The cattle up here have improved the land, opened up the swards and help to manage rushes and dwarf shrubs such as heather which dry out the peat. It’s all part of the ecosystem and how it has been managed for centuries,” explains Lisa.

Aware of the public’s perception of farming and the underlying concern of climate change, Lisa and Sion are clear that farming here in Wales plays a crucial role in addressing such worries. “People are more savvy now and they ask where their food comes from. They are more concerned about the carbon footprint of the produce. There is more pressure on the industry, however, we need to shout a bit louder about the good work we’re doing. This here is a good example of that and there is a lot of other good work going on across the country,” says Sion Roberts. 

“Farmers are absolutely not responsible for destroying the environment. Generally when you get these big statistics you get a global general view of agriculture and it’s far removed from what’s happening here in Wales. We are ahead of many other countries when it comes to looking after the environment. It would be nice to see through agri environment schemes such as Glastir how many hedgerows have been planted and woodlands have already been created. 

“Those statistics would be quite amazing. We need to be better at capturing that information and putting it out there. So many driven farmers are also now trying to improve on farm efficiencies by reducing days to slaughter and utilising grass better, it all helps when it comes to our carbon footprint as an industry,” added Lisa.

The family are now also looking at planting trees to further improve their carbon footprint. “We haven’t established how many yet and we’re not going to plant the whole farm full of trees.The steep parts of the land, where we can’t get the tractor to and can’t graze much livestock and where it’s covered in bracken, those are the areas we’re currently looking at. We’ve identified some small parcels of land where we think they are not very productive in terms of food production and hope to turn them into small woodland parcels and sell the carbon credit for those or manage them for our own purposes,” said Lisa. 

Ambitions to reduce livestock farming under the guise of climate change prevention are not well placed according to the Roberts family. “Through different agri environment schemes such as Glastir we’ve had to reduce the number of livestock here but they certainly couldn’t get any lower. The livestock plays an intrinsic part of managing this landscape and environment. They improve biodiversity and it creates habitats. This is a SSSI area here and we’ve got a huge variety of species flourishing on the land. We monitor that as part of the SSSI. Grazing is essential for that biodiversity. Its not about reducing livestock numbers, it's about improving production efficiency,” added Sion. 

“It’s a good idea to think outside the box where you can and push your business forward. A limiting factor on a hill farm like this is increasing livestock numbers.

“We haven’t got the land to expand livestock with little lowland at our disposal. So we needed to look at other avenues such as this, which have allowed us to improve our environmental performance. Farming is our life. I was brought up on a farm, married a farmer and count myself as a farmer - not just a farmer's wife. 

“I am passionate about farming and people need to understand that you can produce food hand in hand with the environment. The public perception that producing food is bad for the environment needs to be challenged and this is one example, like many others in Wales,   of how it can work together,” Lisa said.

* Calculations based on Defra figures (2007) that 2.96kg of carbon dioxide is generated for every litre of oil burner