Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ffridd for the Future – sabre planting at Dyffryn Mymbyr

Outside the farmhouse where Esme and Peter lived
Dyffryn Mymbyr is the hill farm immortalised in ‘I Bought a Mountain’, the Thomas Firbank book published 75 years ago and reprinted countless times. It’s a page-turner telling the story of Firbank buying the farm in 1931, along with thousands of sheep, and making a go of it, despite being a novice born in Canada.

A central character in the book and pillar of strength is Esmé, who he met and married a couple of years later. They went their separate ways during the war and afterwards Firbank gave the farm to Esmé where she lived with her new partner Peter Kirby. She went on to found the Snowdonia Society, and much later the Esmé Kirby Snowdonia Trust, campaigning relentlessly to prevent inappropriate developments spoiling the natural beauty of Snowdonia. After their deaths the farm was acquired by the National Trust in 2005 and since 2010 its two farmhouses have been let to people on a self-catering basis.

Sabre planting in a gully of a stream
Recent guests at the one farmhouse were a party of volunteers ‘sabre planting’ trees into the ffridd; that’s the steep hillside beneath the mountain wall above and the improved land beyond the road below. Sabre planting? The hills are alive with the sound of music and the bleating of hungry sheep who’ll nibble on anything they can reach, making it difficult to establish new trees. But if you plant a sapling at a 90° degree angle to the hillside, it makes it much harder to reach. Within a year or so the sapling develops a sabre shape as it bends upwards to the sun.

Simon Rogers, the National Trust's Community Ranger for North Snowdonia, showed us examples, scoring the volunteers’ efforts on a scale of 1 to 10. ‘That’s a 7 or 8, the gorse downhill from the sapling adds extra protection, but that one over there is a 3 or 4 – far too accessible if a sheep stands on that slab of rock’. Most of the planting to date has been in the gullies eroded by streams. These have steep sides, are partly sheltered from the ferocious winds and the grazing here is not the best i.e. the farming productivity is not being compromised.

Saplings are grown in pots, the consequent root ball giving them a greater chance of success, to a minimum height of 140cm. Sheep might be able to nibble at the lower branches but not the leading branches at the top. Nibbling or pruning the lower branches encourages growth into the leading branches which accelerates the growth into the safe zone.

The 5 year project, which is at the end of its first winter, will see the planting of 3,000 native trees; a mix of Rowan, Birch, Alder, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Oak, Hazel, Willow and Crab Apple. These trees will help establish a bridge or woodland corridor between the wooded valleys of Nant Gwynant and around Capel Curig. 

Funding for this project has been provided in part by a generous donation from the Royal Oak Foundation (the American partner of the National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) to commemorate Fiona Reynolds’ time as Director General. Fiona was a close friend of Esmé and Peter and enjoyed many visits to Dyffryn Mymbyr. Funding has also been provided by the Esmé Kirby Snowdonia Trust.

Participants at the Wales Woodland Meeting visit Dyffryn Mymbyr

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