This interview with Nature Friendly Farming Network member Hywel Morgan was recorded at Easgairllaethdy on 10th March 2022 and transcribed and edited for the website.
PM: I wanted to start by asking you a few questions about the farm. How much land have you got and what kind of farming do you do?
HM: First of all, we farm in the western edge of the Brecon Beacons at Esgairllaethdy in the village of Myddfai, near Llandovery. The farm is the home of the legendary Lady of the Lake and the Physicians of Myddfai. That is part of why I’ve been growing herbal leys because I think if I can’t grow them who should? So we’ve got a hundred and fifty acres and fifteen percent of that’ll be tree cover as well. I’ve put in about a thousand metres of double fencing every year for the past five years for hedgerow restoration – whether that is planting new hedges, coppicing hedges, or hedge-laying. I’m quite passionate about hedges because we used to get a hedging contractor come in and just zap them down to the top of the post. I still get the same hedge cutting contractor in but now I explain and chase him with what I want done. We have a good debate every time, and we’re slowly getting there.
To come back to the farm, we also rent twenty acres just the other side of the village, which is where I’ve started doing regenerative grazing: the cattle spend pretty much three months on there [in the summer] and about sixty days late autumn or early winter, so I try and keep the cows out a bit longer. In the winter they’d be on bale grazing and in the summer they’d just be on mob grazing.
I also do conservation grazing on fifty acres of land which is about eighteen or twenty miles away from here, so I send cattle down there for the summer.
PM: What does conservation grazing mean?
HM: So the guy who runs the land there is a vet and he loves nature and loves to work with nature. He doesn’t charge me for grazing it and I use my cows to improve the biodiversity there, just to manage it – to trample rushes and graze some of the rushes so he can get a bit more wildlife there, and now there’s orchids there all of a sudden – I’ve never seen them there before. I’ve seen them on someone else’s farm but never on land I manage, which is fantastic. There’s also different butterflies and insects there which is fascinating.
PM: So it’s becoming more and more recognised that certain kinds of cattle grazing is actually really beneficial – in the right numbers I guess?
HM: Yes, in the right numbers. Hoof impact does a lot so you’ve got different invertebrates living there. The cows tend to munch grass whereas sheep tend to nibble, and nibblers will nibble harder and closer to the ground whereas cattle will leave a bit more left over for nature. Production-wise it isn’t fantastic because you’re producing less meat per acre or per hectare, but we have to have this balance of food production and nature – biodiversity and wildlife – and finding the sweet spot between biodiversity and productivity is key.
Food is important – food security is probably more important than food production.
PM: What’s the difference?
HM: Well, food security is that you’ve got good quality food when you need it. Food production – well, of the amount of lamb we produce in Wales we only consume about five percent, so I wouldn’t call that food security in Wales – that’ll be food production –that’s quite a scary stat, that we export ninety-five percent of our lamb we produce in Wales. A lot of it goes to England, some of it goes abroad as well. I don’t think we’re quite self-sufficient in the UK or Wales with beef: I think we need more cattle in the uplands, especially on common land because they manage the habitat differently.
Food security is also about producing more nutritional food; producing a commodity is food production, potentially at a cost to the environment, biodiversity and climate.
I went up this morning to check the cattle. I’ve got Highlands on the hill doing much better for the vegetation than sheep do, because sheep will nibble the short sweet grass right down. The cattle will just trample it for a start, and by trampling it they’re just putting organic matter back into the soil and regenerating it a bit.
PM: So do you mean there’s more vegetation left or that they’re managing to get through the winter on what’s there?
HM: Yes, obviously it’s horses for courses. I’ve got the Highland cattle up there on the hill – they’re the hardier breed, but the conversion factor from what they eat into meat is not as great as a Continental breed, for example, or maybe even a Hereford or an Angus – native breeds tend to want a bit better grazing than the Highland, but then the native breeds will need better quality than these Continentals that just want cereals in their stomach.
PM: Do you own the 150 acres here and has it been in your family for a long time?
HM: Yes, dad moved here in his early twenties – he’s eighty-two now so sixty years he owned it. He lived next door with his parents and his three brothers and my grandmother (she’s passed away now and my granddad has) always used to say how her husband (my grandad) was renting the farm off the local estate and how he managed to buy the farm off the estate, and also the farm where his parents lived. Post WW2 there was an urge for producing food and the estate had a lot of financial costs. They couldn’t manage all this land so they wanted to offload it, so grandad went from paying rent on these farms by catching and selling rabbits during the war to owning three farms: he eventually bought the next door farm off another farming family so it’s quite an impressive story: it’d be nice if I could tell my grandchildren I did that. I don’t think it’s going to happen!
PM: Do you think there’s less incentive for tenant farmers to do the kind of work you’re doing with the nature friendly aspect, or more difficult for them to do that?
Yes, especially with tenant farmers because they have to pay rent and they’re obliged to look after the farm in a certain way for the owner, and as farmers in general they’re still focused on this production-production-production model. They’ve started to talk about some environmental things now; they’ve been saying they’ve been doing environmental work forever – which they have a little bit – but their methodology or ideology with the union is production, and they’ve twigged that future payments will be based on environment; they now want a three tier payment structure with stability productivity and environment. So, stability payments for me are questionable because who is going to pay a stability payment? It means you have a base level of something. The idea is okay, but who and what benefits from it? I’m really concerned about that, because I feel like they just want to keep the BPS (Basic Payment Scheme). So if you look at that system, I get my BPS cheque every December, which is great, but I don’t have to do much, aside from a few cross-compliances, to get it. It’s just by owning land or having land within your control, whether you own it or it’s tenanted.
You have wealthy land owners, who get tax reduced for owning land, and get government help with it, and they can put all of it into a tax relief pension portfolio, so they get three elements of tax relief from public money. To me, if you’re a super-rich person, I don’t think having public money for the luxury of owning land, is right.
PM: Especially if you’re not improving its biodiversity or regenerating it?
HM: Especially if they might be damaging nature, or biodiversity, or the environment. I think that’s something we have to move away from. I feel like the unions just want to cling on to it. I can understand there is an element that, if farming families cannot survive on the land, you’ll see more wealthy corporations buying up farmland, so there has to be a link between payment and who actually gets it. I can get my BPS cheque just like my London-based neighbour can, and I don’t have to do anything to get a payment, neither does he. It’s not good use of public money. I’m sure you’d be quite happy if somebody said ‘If you buy a bigger house and a big lawn, we’ll give you a lot of money to look after this lawn’ or ‘we’ll give you money because you’ve got a lawn!’ you know? It doesn’t work like that. Us farmers, we keep putting our hands up and saying we want public money just to keep doing what we’re doing. Owning land is a luxury – I’m quite a lucky person, to own a farm here, I feel really wealthy just because, like we were doing before this interview, we walked around the farm, and we can let a dog run loose, we can wander. We’ve seen red kites, different birds, it’s a luxury, and I’m sure you, like everyone living in a big city, would be chuffed to have something like this.
But to get money, just for the luxury of having it, I don’t think it will stack up in the future. I think the future payments should be based on what we do. There’s an element of food production, there’s a market for it, but public goods should go towards improving biodiversity, having more birds on your farm, more wildlife, more butterflies, just looking after nature, repairing climate change. And I agree with it, and believe in it.
PM: How did you get into nature friendly farming and have you made some changes on the farm?
HM: I had this discussion with one of the Welsh civil servants, in the winter fair four years ago, and I asked them ‘since Brexit, what does the government want us to do?’ and he basically explained, look after nature, farm with nature rather than pay us to keep sheep or keep cows. They will always be a part of it, but the government wants us to farm with nature. The government are my best customer, probably, so I went on a Farming Connect Management and Exchange study tour, put an application through and my subject was low input farming, keeping in mind the conversation I had four years previously. And my friend had just done a Nuffield scholarship on something similar so he gave me lots of ideas on where to go and who to meet. I met all these fantastic people that were just working with nature, weren’t buying much input for the farm, weren’t using fertiliser, some were just using a little concentrates in peak times as a buffer.
And then, I went to the Food and Farming conference in Aberystwyth, which was quite interesting. A lot of key speakers, people I’ve always wanted to bump into and have a chat with, people that fascinated me. I went for one day, and as soon as I signed in I got the feeling there weren’t many farmers there, even though it was the Food and Farming conference in Wales. There weren’t many larger scale farmers; there were quite a few hobby farmers, but they can grow a lot of food and are an important part of the equation. The Nature Friendly Farming Network had a stand there, and I got talking to them. They were very good, very engaging, and some people there that day really inspired me. Tony Davies was giving a presentation, talking about how he had a big sheep hill farm, and he cut sheep numbers back and became more profitable because he was buying less, so he wasn’t spending money on pharmaceutical companies or feed merchants, fertilisers, etc. and he’s keeping more money on his farm and has more time for his family. It inspired me. There was a guy talking about maximum sustainable outputs as well, and I thought I need to meet these guys again, so I signed up to be a member of Nature Friendly Farming, and I was asked by a friend who works for RSPB whether I’d be interested in joining a steering group, and I thought ‘I’ll give it a go’ and now, 13 months on, I find it really inspiring. There’s a group of like-minded people that we can bounce ideas off, share information; we have the opportunity to talk to civil servants, talk to stake holders, getting involved more and more. We get asked by the government to attend meetings. It gave me the opportunity to host the Nature Friendly Farming Network farm walk where I met you.
PM: Which was brilliant!
HM: Yes, it was great. And I really enjoyed engaging, sharing some of my passion, and I love people asking questions, because every time people ask questions, I learn. And I might’ve told this story at the time, but I think two or three years ago this little boy from a village came up, wanting to see sheep lambing because he’d never really seen sheep in his life, and he was asking a lot of questions – I loved them, such simple questions, like ‘why are you doing this?’ ‘why are you doing that?’ and I thought ‘God, why am I doing it?’, and his father turned around to him and said ‘Stop asking so many questions!’. I said ‘No, don’t! I’ve learned more in the past half hour than I have in a long time’.
PM: So what changes have you made since you signed up for Nature Friendly Farming?
HM: I had given up fertiliser just previously, after being on the management exchange. Initially I just did trials on my farm, some of the fields with fertiliser, some without, and I wasn’t seeing much difference. I had to convince myself first. I’d always wanted to be organic: I’d met someone years ago and they asked me ‘why are you using fertiliser?’ and I said ‘well I won’t grow grass without it’ and he said ‘yes you can’. So I did these trials and I wasn’t seeing a benefit to spending £300 a tonne, and the other day someone was quoted £950 a tonne. I was struggling to make money, to justify £300 a tonne, so for £950 you’d be better just burning that money on a fire.
So I [stopped using fertiliser]. I grew my hedges taller, and all of a sudden I saw all these birds around in later winter. I grow my hedges at least six foot above the barbed wire line. Some hedges I won’t cut for three years. But seeing on a hot summer’s day, where my sheep and cows are, they’re just hiding in that shade from the hedges, and when the sun moves they move with the shade. Watching your animals tells you a lot! I’ve cut down a lot on pharmaceuticals, I cut back on wormers and injections. I used to dose my sheep for worms routinely four to five times a year, just like I’d always been told to do. I do faecal counts that tell me whether I need to worm something, and sometimes if the sheep are looking a bit rough I will give them wormer, but it’s very, very rare that I do.
I used to spray off a field of grass with Roundup and drill swedes. Now I don’t do that; I just conserve grass for winter feed. I’m in the process now of doing that. I’ve got about ten days left of conserved grass before I’m ready to put my sheep in those lambing fields. I will probably put some sheep in a shed – it conserves a bit of grass ready for the sheep and lambs. I’ve tried to do more hay than silage so I’m spending less and I don’t use so much plastic. That’s weather dependent obviously. I’ve come to the conclusion that cows prefer hay to silage, they like variety, but hay is much easier and has less slurry.
PM: Does that mean you cut it a bit later?
HM: Yes, you cut it in the middle of July rather than late June. You have to watch the weather forecast – you might have only a small window. You’re just trying to leave things, let the grass go to seed; it’s self seeding. I asked the question in the Groundswell show – I asked Jay Fuhrer, a regenerative farmer in America, who all of a sudden had become an idol of mine – ‘How do I go from grass to swedes and back to grass without spraying or ploughing?’, and he looked at me and asked if I’m a livestock farmer, and I said ‘Yes’, and he said ‘All grass?’, and I said yes, and he said ‘why the bloody hell do you want to kill grass off to put it back to grass? You want to kill self seeding perennial grass to put back in self seeding perennial grass?’ I said. ‘I want to grow swedes for my sheep over winter for sixty days’, and he just gave that look, and I thought ‘why am I doing this?’
PM: So the sheep can just be on the grass?
HM: Every winter is different. This winter has been milder so the grass has very much kept on growing, so it hasn’t really shut down, but conserving the grass over summer – you’ve got grass ready for them. So I mob graze, and every three or four days I move the electric fence just to give them a new strip. The sheep are contented, probably more contented than if they were on roots, and I’m not saying it is the answer, but so far I’m happy with how it’s going.
PM: I saw some fields on the way here, completely bare but covered with swedes for the sheep. It’s quite a strange sight.
HM: Yes. If you pass it when it’s wet and muddy and all the sheep are standing there, it looks quite sad, it’s not a good look for agriculture.
PM: And you’ve dug a pond!
HM: Yeah – when I joined the Glastir Advanced scheme (I’m in the seventh year of it), one of the things I wanted was a pond on my farm, because I love a pond. It’s the sort of place you can just chill out and just watch what goes on. I had issues with a pond that dries out in the summer, so when you came for the nature farming walk in October, the pond was empty, but after four days of heavy rain the pond was full to overflowing. There was a duck there yesterday, there’s a heron, there’ll be Canadian geese, there’s all sorts of insects, dragonflies, around there.
PM: Could you say a little more about the Glastir Advanced?
HM: It’s an environmental scheme in Wales, similar to your stewardship scheme in England. It pays you income for fixed costs on various things, planting hedges, fencing the hedges off, pond creation. It’s allowed me to do what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s not every farmer’s cup of tea but I don’t know why. I’m quite happy putting a hedge in across my field if I can see the benefit of it.
PM: Has it changed how you feel about farming, carrying out these nature-friendly measures?
HM: Oh yes, definitely. If I wasn’t doing this, I think I would just be losing. But even now, struggling with what’s going on, I feel like Welsh government policies – they’re dragging their feet so much, it just drains you. I feel like I’m already doing what they want to do, but they’re not acknowledging or rewarding the fact that farmers like me are doing good things. There’s a lot of farmers out there doing good things – just acknowledge us and reward us for doing it!
PM: Are you worried that if they now start measuring it, you’ve already got to a good level?
HM: That’s a big concern. I’m hoping that they’ll say, ‘Even though you’re already doing it we’ll pay you for it’, because it might be the case that I have to destroy it to do it again.
PM: I’ve heard of people hanging back on making good changes in case the legislation comes in. They want to be at a low level to start with so they can be seen to be doing it.
HM: I totally understand that concept, but if the government do that then it would be ridiculous. If someone’s been doing good stuff off their own back you should reward them – not that in twenty years if we’ve done all this good stuff we get penalised for doing it. There’s a risk with what’s happening in Ukraine that more farmers will give up their environment schemes and just go planting more wheat. I read a few weeks ago that a farmer in Cambridge said he’d pull up his wildlife corridors because he couldn’t see the financial benefit of it. With the price of wheat up by nearly £300 a tonne at the moment, it’s going to drive people to it. But if farmers actually look at the price of fertiliser and chemicals… A local farmer who used to do the spraying for me, he said that he was paying £64 a container for Roundup, it is now £184. It’s trebled, and with fuel and diesel too, it’s trebled. You’ve got to think hard before you put a plough on it. But the market at the moment is rewarding production.
PM: I guess you can’t blame farmers for following the market; you have to run your business…
HM: No! Farmers always do what the government has told them, and the supermarkets are dictating. So the policy and the consumers at the supermarket dictate what we do. I have always gone against the grain. I work off the farm a bit which gives me a bit of a cushion with my finances; it’s still tough but it gives me a bit of flexibility so I don’t have to push my production model too much. At the end of the day we have to do what we feel comfortable with and what makes us happy. If production-production-production makes you happy then so be it, do it. If it’s chilling out and taking time out with your family, perhaps that’s the way to go forward. If you just want to look after nature and produce some meat for local customers that’s fine, just do what makes you happy. The other week I took my daughter and grandson out for lunch, and it was probably the best day of my week.
PM: So it sounds like there’s a middle ground. But do you think that nature-friendly farming actually releases the farmer to do some other things, because it’s less time-intensive?
HM: I think to a certain degree it does. But I think, as farmers, we can be as busy as we want to be, rather than as busy as we need to be. Sometimes we can be busy fools; we do things just to justify the activity of being a farmer, if you understand me. If I was a farmer just going down to the pub in Llandovery every lunchtime, just having a meal, some farmers would start to say, ‘God he’s a lazy guy’, but I could be the most productive farmer! Just because I’ve taken an hour off, they’ll say ‘Ah he’s a lazy ass isn’t he’. A farmer I know’s neighbour said ‘You’re not a proper farmer’ and he asked ‘What’s the definition of a proper farmer?’ and he couldn’t answer him.
PM: Do you feel like there is peer pressure?
HM: Oh, a hundred percent! And that’s huge. Personally, I’ve had to fight that, from dad, from my son, from neighbours, your community, people looking over the hedge and saying ‘Oh god what’s he doing?’ I quite like that, I’m a bit stubborn. If somebody says ‘You shouldn’t be doing that’, or You can’t do that’, I want to prove a point…to myself, either yes I can, or that they were right. Ultimately you’re in control of your own destiny, so it’s best to fail after your decisions than fail after someone else’s decisions, so if dad says I should do something and it fails, I’m angry with him and angry with me for listening, but if I fail after I changed something and I’ve done something totally different, I can rectify that quite easily. You learn from your mistakes, but somebody else’s mistakes means it’s difficult to learn something.
PM: Does that come into the nature-friendly elements, that you’re trying things yourself? And do you feel like you have a bit more control in that situation?
HM: Yes, definitely, and just being part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, you get back-up. Not just from the steering group in Wales, but farmers in England and Scotland. We have a WhatsApp group going which is fantastic, so I can pick up the phone or send a message to someone based in Yorkshire or Cumbria and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ‘Have you tried this?’ ‘Is this going to work?’ ‘Should I be doing this?’ and they’ll just tell you how they find it. They’ll say ‘Oh I tried that but I made a huge mistake’ or ‘Oh it was the best thing I’ve ever done’. Neil Heseltine in Yorkshire did a presentation for a group of us before lockdown, and while travelling back from Scotland seeing my son I messaged him: ‘Any chance I can call by and see what you’re doing?’ and he took us around his farm and showed us what he’s been doing. It’s the simplicity: previously he had all these sheep, just stressing, prepping, fertilising. The purpose of his life was to win rosettes in a show, and then he realised that he wasn’t making any money – at best he was breaking even, at worst he was losing money, and he had no time for family.
As farmers we tend to neglect the people closest to us. I’m as guilty as anybody of it. You’re too busy, especially when the kids are small. I was too busy being addicted to farming than taking my kids out anywhere. We had a pretty good balance as a family, but I worked off the farm for fifteen years in a food factory, so my vision and perspective have always been sort of different. In hindsight, working in a food factory with three hundred people who didn’t have much connection with farming, was the best thing that happened to me for my personal development. Yes, farming is important, but not the most important thing in the world. Producing food is important, but there are other important things in the world too.
PM: We talked a bit earlier about the issue with mental health in farming. The RABI report says that thirty-six percent of farmers are possibly or probably depressed.
And the other percentage don’t say nothing, but they are, probably. I think it’s huge, isn’t it? I drive a feed lorry a couple of days a week and you get to talk to farmers, get to know them and get to talk to them, and you sense it. Some farmers even tell me how depressed they are, how they’re struggling. It’s quite tough, but we talk and we share stories and we become good friends. You can tell with some farmers, as soon as they see that lorry turn up they just want to come and have a chat. We might talk about farming, might talk about something else, and it’s important. You feel like they’ve perked up.
PM: Does the Nature Friendly Farming Network help with that? Like you were just saying, you can just pick up the phone. Do you feel like you’re part of a bigger group?
HM: Yes, it’s brilliant. I just checked the phone because there’s usually a little discussion going. It’s like sometimes you just need someone to talk to, and even if it’s just a text message and being part of a conversation, it’s really uplifting. Farmers can be cruel as well as kind: you might be having a difficult day, maybe you’re lambing and you’ve lost a couple lambs, and you think nobody else is having problems, but we were having a discussion the other day and the other farmers were opening up about how they’ve lost sheep or had poor scanning results. They get tired of hearing ‘Oh my farm’s hunky dory, it’s never a disaster’. You talk to farmers who have had that problem and you feel a bit better, because you’re not alone; you can feel a bit isolated. When you go to the marketplace you can have to put up a big macho image, that you’re doing well, that you’re on top of the game, and you need a bit of bounce in your step to sell, you need your mojo right. Being part of a network, I find you can discuss things that are totally irrelevant to your farm but they might be relevant to helping each other.
PM: I’ve seen a film on social media, directed at farmers, about asking twice – how are you? No, how ARE you? It’s really important.
HM: It’s the DPJ [Mental Health Farming Charity] doing that, I think. It’s important, you ask them twice. Some people just don’t want to talk about it and that’s fine, but just be mindful and keep an eye out for them. The government has a big part to play in this. We’ve got the RPW [Rural Payments Wales] so if we’ve got any issues with cross-compliance or inspection issues, you phone up their call centre, and they’ll take a note and get somebody to deal with it, but it can take months which is totally unacceptable. If they call me up, I have to respond in a few hours, a few days, but when I ask something it can be months and months, and they don’t come back with an answer. It could be a simple answer, but to that farmer it could be the biggest issue he’s ever had to face, and not responding is terrible. I think they need to up their game. I know they’re busy and everything, but even during Covid I was expected to respond.
PM: Do you have any way of measuring biodiversity on the farm? Are you getting anyone coming to look at the bird life or anything like that?
HM: Not yet, but in April and May I’ve got the Biodiversity Blitz coming here, so I’ll get a sense of it. Obviously, I don’t know what was going on here 5 years ago, but they’ll be coming here and it’ll be good. They’re coming in April to do the dandelion inspection, because the last two weeks of April are the key dates for that. I think there’ll be more work to do than they’ll have time for, but it’ll be so interesting. We did have somebody from the RSPB come out a few years ago to do a bird count, but it was the wettest windiest day ever, and he sat in his car in the yard and said he’d hardly seen anything. Some days, you don’t see hardly any birds, but like yesterday I was driving around on a bike and you see all these birds, I think ‘Oh what bird was that?’
PM: Oh yes, the small brown one….
HM: Yes. They fly off so quickly, you know. But I think I’ve got some curlews up on the hill, but I can’t find anyone to come and check if they are curlews.
PM: On the open day I came to, I think you said that you sometimes wished that your grandad was here to ask him stuff. Is part of the nature friendly ideal about recovering some of the good ideas of the past?
HM: Pretty much, yes. Someone told me, ‘We need to do what our grandfathers used to do, before farming was industrialised’. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve learned a lot, but we’ve learned good things as well as bad things. But it’d be fantastic, going back in time and just watching how your grandad used to run the farm. Listening to my father, he was always a farmer but also worked in forestry a bit, and he’s forever talking about the guy he used to work with in forestry: they were good mates and kept in touch all the time. But hearing my father repeating stories about my grandad, his dad, I thought how fantastic life sounded. Hard, but just going up on a hill on horseback and chatting to a fellow grazier for hours and hours on end. Even my dad and mum used to go away with the neighbours, to different shows and events. As a kid I used to go with them quite often, and I felt like they were doing something all the time, as neighbours and friends.
Now I feel like we’re just working. Like we’re running faster to stand still at the moment, because even at 15 I had my own sheep, and I pretty much had the same money then as I’m having now. It hasn’t changed. The price of fertiliser and feed and fuel and everything’s gone up crazy, but what we get for the end product hasn’t.
PM: Final question! On the open day I was really impressed by the GPS collars on the Highland cattle, and I’m interested in the idea that this nature-friendly farming is partly about looking back at the past and partly really futuristic.
HM: I think that’s key, isn’t it? I think technology is fantastic, but if it’s technology to replace failed technology you have to question the technology. To me, that fence technology has been great. It’s actually a game changer for what I want to do. I think, in time, I’ll be able to manage without the collars, because the cattle will get used to the place.
PM: Thanks very much, Hywel. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
All photographs copyright Hywel Morgan and used with kind permission.