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Farming and the Economy of Kite Country

The Agricultural Economy

Whilst industry continues to be the largest employer throughout the county of Powys, agriculture in general and sheep farming in particular are the mainstays of the local economy. This is especially true in Kite Country, where manufacturing activity is mainly concentrated around the boundaries of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Sheep and cattle have been reared in the valleys and high moorland of the Beacons ever since the area was first settled. Now it is estimated that there are about 1 million sheep in the Park, outnumbering humans by 30 to one. By tradition, almost every town within the National Park has its own livestock market, although the level of trades and the prices of sheep and cattle have been in sharp decline for some years now, with the total income from farming in Wales down by some 64% over the last two years. Hill farms are commonly let to farmers by other landlords and many farmers are able to exist only with the assistance of state subsidies. The collapse in prices as a result of the BSE crisis has meant that many farmers and their families rely on income support and other assistance. Most hill farmers are totally committed to their way of life, although many are forced to give up every year or to diversify into other areas.

Farming Practice

The principles of hill farming have changed very little since the early Middle Ages, although mechanisation has obviously made its mark. "Tupping" or mating of ewes and rams is facilitated in October/November when the flocks have been brought down to lowland pastures. Lambing usually takes place between March and early May, although some lambs are born in mid-winter in heated barns. This is the busiest period for the hill farmer, who frequently works day and night at this time. At the end of the twentieth century a number of farmers have adopted CCTV to help them monitor the health of new lambs and pregnant ewes.

After lambing the flocks are moved to the higher moorland pastures and common land (see my Mountains page for an explanation of this term). Mature sheep are again brought down from the hills in Summer for shearing. Whereas this used to be done by individual farmers, nowadays contractors and machinery are employed. The herding of stock to and from the upland commons is often a frenetic time and the visitor to Kite Country might encounter literally hundreds of sheep being herded down narrow country lanes or across busy main roads. Dipping of sheep to protect them against scab usually takes place in Autumn. In the past, pyrethroid dips were suspected of causing some local pollution incidents, especially in rivers. However, better alternatives are available today, such as the mobile, enclosed high-pressure sprays that are offered by a number of contractors.

Agricultural Shows

Welsh hill farmers are generally very proud of their skills and place great emphasis also on the preparation of animals for livestock shows, where reputations can be enhanced and the value of a prize ewe increased. Agricultural shows are also a very important social event in an area where the remoteness of some farms and the sheer hard work required to maintain them mean that normal social association is not often possible. Shows are held at various times of the year, although most take place in the Summer, when the fine weather means that the organisers can often provide other attractions to support the festive atmosphere and amuse farmers' families as well.

The biggest show of all is the Royal Welsh, which has been held at the permanent showground in Builth Wells on the River Wye every year since 1963 (see Map 5). This massive show is normally held over four days in the last week of July and attracts around a quarter of a million visitors from all over the country. It is well worth visiting and is very entertaining. Displays of country pursuits, such as fly fishing, are held, and you will also see demonstrations of crafts and masses of other interesting things. The Brecon Show is also very good, although on a much smaller scale. This is usually held during the first weekend in August. At the smaller end of the scale are the very many village shows held throughout the year and which have their own particular attraction. You should try to go and see at least one of these during your visit.

Conservation and the Future

The interests of Welsh farmers are protected and advanced by the Farmers Union of Wales, which seeks to raise the profile of the many hill farmers in the face of conflicting requirements by the larger lowland agribusinesses, European bureaucrats and multinational supermarket chains, whose vast buying power means that they can effectively dictate livestock prices. For many years the Welsh hill farmers have felt that the Westminster government has ignored the significant contribution that they make to the economy. Academic theoreticians maintain that hill farming is uneconomic but are unable to suggest a suitable and acceptable alternative. The fact that some animals are now abandoned in public protest at the low prices being offered is compounded by the fact that a few local farmers are now selling high quality meat directly to the consumer at prices that are much lower than those in the supermarket.

The environment of Kite Country is in sensitive balance and the very survival of the Atlantic Salmon and other wildlife such as the Red Kite might eventually depend on the goodwill and support of farmers and landowners (see my Threats page). In the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe there is plenty of evidence to indicate that commercially acceptable intensive farming techniques have served to eradicate huge numbers of species over the last half of this century.

Farmers Markets

A farmers' market is one in which farmers, growers or producers from a defined local area are present in person to sell their own produce, direct to the public. All products sold should have been grown, reared, caught, brewed, pickled, baked, smoked or processed by the stallholder. These markets are now very popular in the United Kingdom and are run in accordance with standards set by the National Farmers' Retail & Markets Association (FARMA). You can find an excellent example of such a market in Brecon. For more details and dates please contact 01874 610008 or see the Brecknock Farmers Market site.

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Hill farm, upper Towy Valley
Hill farm, Towy valley
Winter lambs
Winter lambs
Young farmers at show
Young farmers at show
Judging sheep at Erwood show
Judging at Erwood show
Very young farmer at Brecon show
(Very) young farmer
Hunter and hounds at Brecon Show
Hounds at Brecon Show