Friday, 30 May 2014

Penarfynydd Farm

Penarfynydd is a National Trust tenanted farm 4km west of Aberdaron near the village of Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula. Twenty years ago the heathland was in poor shape with intensive sheep grazing but today it is looking good with a mixed regime which includes cattle, ponies and a specialist breed of sheep. This is a success story in which both the farm’s economy and a broad range of scarce wildlife have benefitted through multiple partners working as an effective team. Penarfynydd is living proof that farming and nature conservation does not need to be a compromise.

You can read the rest of this blogpost or you can listen to Tom explaining what it's all about:

It is very much a mixed farm where Tom Jones, the farmer, manages 850 ewes, 70 beef cattle and contract rears around 100 dairy heifers.  His wife Sharon also rears pigs which are sold direct through farmers markets and in local shops. Spring sown cereals such as barley and oats are grown for winter feed and when the hens are laying, locals and passers-by on the Wales Coast Path can buy eggs at the farm gate.

The farm has a mixture of improved and unimproved land, which includes land outside NT ownership. The unimproved land comprises two large areas of steep, rough coastal grazing, Mynydd Penarfynydd and Mynydd Graig, with a smaller area of coastal slope at Porth Ysgo.

Importance for Wildlife

These coastal habitats are of international significance and designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In particular Mynydd Graig is one of the best and largest remaining examples of heathland on the Llŷn, where heathland declined by around 50% between 1920 and 1998¹. On the exposed coastal fringes, whipped by high winds and salt spray, are communities of maritime plants such as spring squill, sea thrift and, clinging to rock ledges, the nationally rare golden samphire.

Penarfynydd and Mynydd Craig are designated for chough with two pairs breeding in the coastal sea caves. They feed on the invertebrates in animal dung and can sometimes be seen guzzling yellow meadow ants whose nests dot the unploughed grasslands. In autumn and winter, when the choughs have finished breeding and form mixed groups, small flocks come to feed on the site. 

These chough have been studied for over 20 years; one of the breeding females was raised in Port Dinorwig, and probably met her partner when he travelled from Llŷn to roost over winter in Snowdonia.

Golden Hair Lichen
 The wonderful mix of heath and grassland, coastal habitats, bracken, flushes and pools makes for an incredible diversity, including dark green fritillary (using violets under the bracken for breeding), adders tongue fern, adder, palmate newt, brown hare, peregrine falcon, yellow hammer and meadow pipit. The striking, bright yellow, golden hair lichen takes advantage of basic rock outcrops, across the ridge of Mynydd Penarfynydd, created during volcanic episodes over 400 million years ago.

As Tom says, ‘it’s designated for just about everything!’

Sheep reductions

Over 20 years ago Mynydd Graig and Mynydd Penarfynydd looked very different; the sites were used all year round and heavily grazed by sheep with vegetation only a few centimetres high.  In winter, as the grasses died back and lost their nutrition, the sheep would seek out the sweet tasty shoots of heather.

As part of a Section 15 management agreement² with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) sheep numbers were reduced and excluded altogether during autumn and winter. In the short term the removal of winter sheep protected the heathland, the structure of the vegetation became more diverse and suppressed heather was released. But this summer-only grazing regime was not enough to keep on top of the tougher, coarser species and the heathland and grassland habitats were becoming engulfed by gorse and bracken. 

As the coarse, unpalatable species spread, sites such as these become less relevant to farms and this is often the point at which these sites become abandoned, or trapped into unsustainable burning cycles in an attempt to clear the gorse and stimulate a flush of grass.  Both the wildlife and farms lose out.


In 2006 10 ponies were introduced to Mynydd Penarfynydd to help tackle the coarse vegetation and nibble on the gorse to keep the heathlands more open.  These ponies, a rare breed from the harsh environment of the Carneddau, are used to grazing on poor quality vegetation and ideally suited to life on Penarfynydd.  Whilst they generate no income for the farm Tom says they pay their way by keeping the vegetation in better condition for sheep. He likes having them around and, although they are shy of adults, they have made friends with his young children. They also keep the turf shorter, which helps foraging chough, and provide the all important source of dung close to the nest sites of the chough.


Mynydd Graig, which has been occupied since the Bronze Age and has medieval field systems, is an enormous site needing a large number of animals to make an impact on the vegetation.  30 Welsh black cattle were introduced in 2009, helped by a Section 15 management agreement with fencing, water supply and bracken control works.  Originally these animals were from the family’s breeding herd but, since taking over the farm, Tom has been tweaking the system. 

Supported by the Llŷn Coastal Partnership³ some fencing for a particularly tricky bit of the coast has been added, a water trough was moved to resolve the problem of cattle creating a quagmire on the coastal path, and an additional trough helps spread the cattle across the site.   The biggest change was a decision to move away from putting cows and calves on the site; Tom now buys in low value store cattle from the uplands and sells them on after one year.  This system is producing good margins with the animals remaining on Mynydd Graig all year without any supplementary feeding.    

Bracken control has helped to increase the area of grazeable land available to both cattle and sheep with sheep on the site during the late summer but removed for the winter. This mixed grazing regime is ideal for chough, heath and the coastal habitats. The cattle help prevent the bracken from returning and have successfully grazed the rank grassland.  They have also made some in-roads into opening up the heathland and, as part of his Glastir agreement, Tom will be experimenting with small-scale burns, to help break-up the vegetation and entice the cattle to graze there and keep even more of the heath open.

Utilising Mynydd Graig in this way has provided an entirely new income stream for the farm which does not place any additional demands on the rest of his enterprise. 

Aberdale Sheep

Although sheep grazing at the wrong time of year can be damaging to heathland it should be part of the mix; sheep are particularly important on coastal grasslands where the diversity of flowers depends upon grazing. Around Llŷn there are numerous examples of coastal grasslands where grazing has been abandoned or is under-utilised. 
Aberdales are prolific breeders

Using the same principles as he applied to Mynydd Graig with cattle, Tom has been looking for ways to improve his margins on the unimproved coastal land at Porth Ysgo.  He is currently working with Innovis, a company which provides Aberdale sheep, a breed which was developed to help farmers make more efficient use of poorer marginal land.  The experiment is working well with 197% scanning rates and savings on feed costs. Because the ewes cannot be grazed on good land, without the risk of producing too many lambs, the Aberdales need to be managed entirely on the marginal land. Even though they are tupped on the least productive ground, the Aberdale flock can still maintain a high output of lambs which is critical to the bottom line.

Rotational Cattle grazing

Strip grazing
Tom has also been experimenting with rotational grazing on his improved land and has produced a Farming Connect (Welsh Government Knowledge Transfer Programme) case study to share his experience with other farmers.  60 dairy heifers graze on 12 acres in total; they graze 1 acre at a time and are moved on every 24 to 72 hours.  This system leads to better soil fertility, healthier plants with deeper roots and better balanced mineral content for animal nutrition and an increased ratio of dry matter quantity to palatability. 

For Tom this means better liveweight gains and greater utilisation of his improved pasture. This style of management also reduces the need for expensive fertiliser inputs. In nature conservation terms the use of fertiliser can have a big, negative impact by adding atmospheric nitrogen to habitats which rely on being poor in nutrients for their diversity and richness. 

The approach

The management of Mynydd Graig and Mynydd Penarfynydd has been supported through a mixture of agri-environment schemes, Section 15 management agreements and capital works such as fencing and bracken control funded by the Llŷn Coastal Partnership. Using Section 15 to top up agri-environment schemes was the key in supporting the introduction of cattle and ponies.

Through working with the partnership the farm has been able to draw on a broad range of expertise for working on the management of designated sites. Most importantly there has been a two way dialogue between the farm and the partnership to develop solutions that work in the real world.

1.       Changes in the extent and fragmentation of heathland and other semi-natural habitats between 1920–1922 and 1987–1988 in the Llŷn Peninsula. Stevens 1992
2.       Section 15 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
3.       Llŷn Coastal Partnership - a long established partnership of statutory agencies, environmental and community organisations; led by Gwynedd Council and including NRW, National Trust and RSPB. Cadw’r Lliw yn Llŷn project ran for four years before the landscape partnership was successful in gaining a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a range of projects including heathland management and new walks linked to the coastal path.  The HLF has now entered its final year. http://www.ahne-Llŷ

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