Serving the community a vital role in farming
Barry Alston meets an award-winning hill farmer whose biggest fear is misplacing his diary.
With some of Britain’s most picturesque scenic views as a backdrop to the farm, most people would be reluctant to spend time away.
But Hedd Pugh is not like most people - a fact borne out by him winning the first NFU Cymru-NatWest Rural Community Champion of the Year Award.
The award aims to recognise the hard work farmers do off the farm to help their local town or village communities and Hedd was recognised, for his commitment to both.
First and foremost he is a beef and sheep farmer, but his other involvements more than meet the award’s criteria.
Described as ‘a pillar of the community’ by many local residents, he divides his spare time between 24 organisations, societies and activities, all of which play an important role in preserving what is best about rural living.
Such commitment does not come with any presumptions as he was nominated for the award by the YFC Meirionnydd county organiser after being involved with his local YFC.
“I didn’t realise how much I was involved with until I got the letter to tell me I had reached the final three and I sat down and made a list.”
His dedication ranges across farming and non-farming interests and one look at his overflowing diary poses the question of how he can fit everything in.
“It is very difficult sometimes to balance everything and things do clash, but I manage. It’s very important I carry my diary,” he says.
At the same time he keeps a firm grip on his farming activities, which extend to 647 hectares (1,600-acres) around Blaencywarch Farm, nestling in the Cwm Cywarch Valley, Dinas Mawddwy, and are overshadowed by Aran Fawddwy, the highest British mountain south of Snowdon.
There are a further 34ha (85 acres) of ‘lower’ ground near Machynlleth, and conditions on his 2,900-foot high grazings can be tough, but Hedd takes it all in his stride.
The farming system revolves around 10 Hereford and Welsh Black crossbred suckler cows
going to a Charolais bull and 1,200 ewes, mainly improved Hardy Welsh Mountains, which are kept pure but with 100 or so going to Lleyn rams and the resulting crossbreds tupped by a Texel.
Because of the severe conditions, ewe lambs and 400 ewes are wintered away on tack, returning for March and April outdoor lambing. Most lambs are finished and sold deadweight.
It is a farming system Hedd has grown up with, and he knows every inch of the ground and how to make best use of the resources.
He has a very supportive family too, with his wife, Sian, working full-time job as a classroom assistant at a primary school in Dolgellau.
They took over the farm, which has been in the family for generations, back in 1985 and have three sons - each one keen to be a farmer, which in itself is somewhat of a rarity these days.
Eldest son, Dewi, 22, already works on the farm, as well as spending time in the summer contract shearing around Wales and in New Zealand during the winter months.
Owain, 21, is studying for a degree in agriculture at Aberystwyth University, while 18-year-old Carwyn is broadening his skills by taking a building course at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, Dolgellau.
Seeing a future for the area’s farming families is a key driver behind Hedd’s freely-given time to such a diverse range of rural organisations.
Currently his biggest commitment is as chairman of Governors at Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, which also takes in the Glynllifon Agricultural College. Even though that can take up to two days a week, it is merely a blip on a very long list.
Just some of his other involvements, either as chairman or member, include the Snowdonia Local Access Forum, the Aran Society, Meirionnydd County Show, the YFC at club, county and Welsh level, the Welsh Lamb and Beef producers co-operative, NFU Cymru at county and Welsh Council level, the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society at county and council level, the community council and the local village hall.
There are plenty of others, too, and he is involved in the local drama society - acting, producing and working behind the stage as it tours around local venues.
When asked if there is a particular favourite group, he ponders.
“Now that’s a job to answer. But I think it would have been Young Farmers. It was there I really star-ted taking a part in my local community and it’s nice to be active and give something back to them.
“I also like college work because it’s so important we make sure we have a good education for the young people in the area.”
While market prices for stock are critical to the farm, so too, in his eyes, are its Tir Mynydd hill support payments and Tir Gofal agri-environmental scheme - both destined to be swallowed up by the proposed Welsh Assembly all-embracing Glastir land management scheme from 2012 onwards.
Though a great deal of the finer detail is not yet known, what is perfectly clear in Hedd’s mind is that any cuts in support level will have serious repercussions on Welsh hill farming.
“Without a similar level of support, farming in areas such as this would just not be viable,” he says.
“It would spell the end for family farms like ours, with the younger generations being forced to move away in order to survive.
“On a rough calculation, I reckon I stand to lose at least 20 per cent of my income.
“There is not a great deal we can do to replace that lost income. Everything that could be done to improve the quality of our lambs has already been done.
“Maybe we could convert some of our redundant outbuildings into some form of tourism use, but that takes capital and payback could take years.
“Not too many years ago there was recognition that support payments were essential to keep people farming in the hills.
Nothing has changed since. The conditions are just as hard. If anything, the pressures on hill farmers are far worse,” he says.
“Costs have soared, yet the prices we have been getting for our lambs are no higher than in the mid 80s. My wool cheque is nowhere near what it was, either.
“Hundreds of similar hill and upland farms will be facing the same dilemma and once the youngsters have gone, who will be left with the necessary knowledge and experience to maintain farming in such areas?
“Without sheep on the ground, in no time at all the landscape will turn into wilderness, with bracken, brambles and gorse and within 10 years it will be impossible to walk in the hills.
“Tir Mynydd is not only about delivering a hill farming income - it also delivers environmentally, socially and culturally.”
As to the future, will he be joining any other organisations?
“You never know, but I think I’ve got my hands full enough. Farmers and those living in the countryside play an important role in making sure communities stay alive and contribute to ensuring we keep our traditions, and the Welsh language, going for as long as we can.”