Hafod a Hendre:
Transhumance in Wales
On the Preseli Mountains, on the Brecon Beacons, in Snowdonia and the Cambrian Mountains, sheep farmers still practice transhumance. In the old days, the Welsh term for it was hafod a hendre, hafod meaning a farm on the higher pastures where they would take the sheep during the summer (haf is Welsh for summer) and hendre, the old settlement or farm, their main base where the sheep used to go for the winter. Such a system still exists in Romania and many other countries around the world.
The peppering of white which used to be such a common site on the Preselau is becoming sparser each year. Changes in farming subsidies have made it less economically viable for British farmers to keep sheep at all.
Conservation professionals know that grazing with sheep is one of the most effective ways of maintaining biodiversity on heath and moorland. Nowadays these semi-agricultural habitats are called ‘high nature value farmland’.
Of the few shepherds who still heft sheep onto the Preselis, Berian Davies is one of the most upbeat. He and his brothers and cousins constitute an extended farming family that can chart its livelihood here over at least six generations.
Between them, Berian and his brother Ken manage around 4000 head of sheep, and Berian’s two sons are already involved in the family business.
The Preseli pastures are common land that is part of the barony of Cemaes. The barony is currently ruled by a Lady Marcher.
The title of Marcher Lords was introduced to Wales by fiercely independent Norman-English nobles after 1066. Despite being named after the Welsh-English borderlands known as the Marches, their estates extended to the west coast of Wales.
Although many properties have grazing rights on the Preseli Mountains, only a handful of their owners take advantage of the free grass. The active graziers guard these rights as fiercely as their landlords once did.They also defend the mountains jealously against threats to their tranquillity, whether they come from mountain bikers, horse riders, the army (in 1946 the British government tried to turn the Preselis into a permanent army training range; the state capitulated two years later after a vigorous campaign headed by local ministers, schoolmasters and the county council), or from hippies.
Once a year the Preseli commoners hold a meeting to discuss the management of the mountain pastures and vote on any changes that are proposed. The meeting is called the Court Leet and dates back to the 13th century.
Quaint and marginal as it may seem, the Court Leet still carries some weight. Before the proceedings start, each participant must swear an oath on the Bible that he or she will respect the court’s laws which include telling the truth and not spreading false or malicious propaganda. The discussions can be pithy too: not everyone always agrees with the proposals that are put forward, particularly ones that are seen to come from ‘on high’ (national or park authorities!). But part of the attraction is for the graziers to meet each other in the congenial surroundings of a pub meeting room, and to have a drink at the Lady Marcher’s expense.
Here are some pictures from the Davieses’ sheep gathering on 11th November 2008. First, using dogs and quad bikes, they herded all the sheep from their heft into a large field near their sorting pens on the edge of the moorland. These animals included ewes belonging to other farmers.
Sorting sheep is a serious business. When I took these pictures the Davies family and its extended members were concentrating so hard that they didn’t have time to talk to me. The process involved shooing the seething flock through a narrow passage just wide enough for a single animal to move through it without getting stuck. Two shepherds controlled the stream at the other end of the funnel, filtering their own animals through one gate and other people’s sheep through another. Their dogs (mainly Border collies - one of whom cost £2000 as a pup - and Kelpies, a mix of Dingo and Border collie) policed the outer edges of the mass which eddied and flowed like stream water.
Here as in many other parts of the world, farmers cut a special nick in their sheep’s ears. The animals collected in this gathering had seven different marks denoting seven different owners, and the Davieses had to be quick off the mark to recognise their own beasts. They were also taking in sheep from some other farms. Once all the sheep had been through the funnel, the shepherds let the unwanted strangers go back to their mountain grazing.
Instead of sheltering in a traditional hendre, the Davieses’ and several other people’s flocks spend the winter on an army firing range on the south Pembrokeshire coast. Unlike Romanian transhumance, they travel by lorry, not on foot, and although the graziers take it in turns to keep an eye on the animals every day or so, none of the farmers will stay with them throughout the day or night. The sheep will return to the Preselis in March.
My thanks are due to Berian Davies and his family for allowing me to use these images, and to Geraint Jones, conservation officer for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, for information about changing attitudes to conservation of grassland management.