I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep. It occupies many of my waking hours; it haunts my dreams. I hate them. Perhaps I should clarify that statement. I hate not the animals themselves, which cannot be blamed for what they do, but their impact on both our ecology and our social history. Sheep are the primary reason - closely followed by grouse shooting and deer stalking - for the sad state of the British uplands. Partly as a result of their assaults, Wales now possesses less than one third of the average forest cover of Europe1. Their husbandry is the greatest obstacle to the rewilding I would like to see.
To identify the sheep as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy. In England and Wales the animal appears to possess full diplomatic immunity. Its role in the dispossession of many of the people who once worked on the land, as the commons were enclosed by landlords hoping to profit from the wool trade, is largely forgotten. This is what Thomas More wrote in Utopia, published in 1516:
“Your sheep, that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities. For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentlemen, yea and certain abbots, holy men no doubt … leave no ground for tillage, they inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing, but only the church to be made a sheep-house … the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else either by cunning and fraud, or by violent oppression they be put besides it, or by wrongs and injuries they be so wearied, that they be compelled to sell all: by one means therefore or by other, either by hook or crook they must needs depart away”.2
In Wales, the white plague has become an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei.
In Scotland, where the Clearances were more sudden and even more brutal than the enclosures in England and Wales, some people remain aware of the dispossession and impoverishment caused by sheep farming. But in Wales, though sheep have replaced people since the Cistercians established the Strata Florida abbey in the 12th Century, and though these enclosures were bravely resisted by riots and revolts such as Rhyfel y Sais Bach (the War of the Little Englishmen) in what is now Ceredigion in 18203, the white plague has become a symbol of nationhood, an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, “which taketh away the sin of the world.” I have come across a similar fetishisation in Australia and New Zealand, North America, Norway, the Alps and the Carpathians.
There is a reason for this sanctification, but it is rapidly becoming outdated. While sheep were used in Wales as an instrument of enclosure in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the 20th there was a partial but widespread process of land reform in the uplands. In the aftermath of David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909, which increased income tax and inheritance tax for the very rich, the big landowners in Wales, many of whom were English, began to sell off some of their property4. They appear to have been less attached to their Welsh estates than to their English properties or their sporting land in Scotland, so these were shed first. Much of the land was bought by their tenants. Partly as a result, a smaller proportion of Wales than of England or Scotland remains in large estates. As the farmer with whom I have discussed these issues at length points out: “there is a great sense of national pride in the fact that the local population, after centuries of subservience, were able to reclaim ‘their’ lands, and were no longer beholden to the lord of the manor.”5
After the second world war, through the 1947 Agriculture Act and the 1948 Agricultural Holdings Act, the tenant farmers who continued to rent their land gained security for life. For 80 or 90 years, until quite recently, much of the land in Wales was controlled by small farmers, most of whom raised sheep and cattle6. During a period in which it faced mortal threats, they sustained the Welsh language and important elements of the national culture. Now the family farms are consolidating rapidly, into new agricultural estates. Despite the £3.6bn a year British people spend ostensibly to sustain a viable farm economy, the National Farmers’ Union reports that “21% of upland farms are not expected to continue beyond the next 5 years.”7 The brief flowering of small-scale farming appears to be coming to an end.
By the end of the 19th Century, mixed farming had been replaced by sheep and cattle.
Until the enclosures, Welsh farmers kept large numbers of cattle and goats in the uplands, and grew cereals, root crops and hay, even, in some places, on the tops of the hills. By the end of the 19th Century, and the coming of the railways, much of this mixed farming had been replaced by sheep and cattle. The enclosures consolidated a grazing culture which still resonates through the place names, ballads and oral traditions of Wales. Farmers moved their flocks between hendre – literally “old town” (the winter grazings surrounding the farmstead) - and hafod, rough huts in the summer pastures on the hills8. (I have seen a similar system in Transylvania, where, in the late 1990s, shepherds who rode fine black horses still slept in summer houses, or stînas, of sticks and shakes in the mountains, milked their sheep and cows in the pastures, made a white cheese which they hung in bags from the rafters, drank plum brandy and sang around the fire at night). Drovers walked the sheep along ancient tracks into England, driving the flocks from the Welsh uplands to markets as distant as Kent. Shepherds bred dogs and trained them to perform astonishing feats. Most of this has now gone, or persists – in the form of sheepdog trials – as little more than a ghost of the economy it once served.
Subsidies after the second world war encouraged the farmers to increase the size of their flocks. Between 1950 and 1999, the number of sheep in Wales rose from 3.8 to 11.6 million. After headage payments – grants for every animal a farmer kept – were stopped in 2003, the population fell back again, to 8.2 million by 20109, which is still almost three sheep for every human being in Wales.
Since the second world war, sheep have reduced what remained of the upland flora to stubble. In 6000 years, domestic animals (alongside burning and clearing for crops and the cutting of trees for wood and bark and timber) tranformed almost all the upland ecosystems of Britain from closed canopy forest to open forest, from open forest to scrub and from scrub to heath and long sward. In just 60 years, the greatly increased flocks in most of the upland areas of Britain completed the transformation: turning heath and prairie into something resembling a bowling green with contours.
Though sheep numbers have begun to decline, the impacts have not.
Though sheep numbers have begun to decline, the impacts have not. More powerful machinery allows farmers to erase patches of scrub growing on land that was previously too steep to clear. This allows them to expand the area that qualifies for subsidies. In mid-Wales some farmers appear to retain a powerful compulsion, as they sometimes put it, to “tidy up” the land. Ancient hawthorns and crab apples close to my home, often the last remnants of the last hedges on hills that are otherwise devoid of trees, are still being ripped up and burnt, for no agricultural reason that I can discern, except a desire for neatness and completion. From my kayak in Cardigan Bay I see a sight that Neolithic fishermen would have witnessed: towers of smoke rising from the hills as the farmers burn tracts of gorse and trees.
The UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment shows that the catastrophic decline in farmland birds in Wales has accelerated, despite the reduction in the number of sheep: in the six years after 2003 their abundance fell by 15 per cent10. Curlews have declined by 81 per cent in just 13 years and lapwings by 77 per cent in only ten years. Golden plover, which have been the focus of intense conservation efforts, are now almost extinct: reduced to just 36 breeding pairs11. Even in the most strictly protected places, only seven per cent of the animal and plant species living in rivers are thriving12.
Overwhelmingly the reason is farming: grazing which prevents woods from regenerating and destroys the places where animals and plants might live, the grubbing up of trees, cutting and burning, pesticides and fertilisers which kill wildlife and pollute the watercourses. Almost all the rivers in Wales are in poor ecological condition, which is unsurprising when you discover that the nitrates and phosphates entering the water have risen sharply13. Sheep dip residues have been found in almost 90 per cent of the places scientists have surveyed14. Sheep dip is especially damaging, as it contains a powerful pesticide – cypermethrin - which can kill much of the invertebrate life in a river. Farming is cited as a reason for the decline of wildlife in Wales in 92% of cases15.
George Monbiot is an English journalist known for his political and environmental activism. He lives in Machynlleth, Wales, writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of several books, including Captive State (2000) and Bring on the Apocalypse (2008). His latest book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, is published by Penguin.
Extracts selected by Dr Crystal Bennes.
1. Woodland Trust, 2012. UK Woodland Facts. http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/news-media/fact-file/Pages/uk-woodla…
2. Chapter 22.
3. David Williams, 1952. Rhyfel y Sais Bach: an enclosure riot on Mynydd Bach. Journal of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol. 2, nos. 1-4.
4. National Library of Wales, 2004. Life on the Land: land ownership. http://digidol.llgc.org.uk/METS/XAM00001/ardd?locale=en
5. Dafydd Morris-Jones, 12th February 2011. By email.
6. The cattle gradually disappeared: partly, it seems, as a result of the loss of the suckler cow premium - a European subsidy - in 2003.
7. In evidence submitted to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 16th February 2011. Farming in the Uplands. Third Report of Session 2010–11. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvfru/556…
8. Some hafod dwellings eventually became solid stone houses.
9. Statistics for Wales, 28th July 2011. Agricultural Small Area Statistics for Wales, 2002 to 2010. SB 75/2011 http://wales.gov.uk/docs/statistics/2011/110728sb752011en.pdf
10. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.8 Short-term abundance of widespread breeding birds in Wales 1994–2009. http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx
11. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2009. RSPB Cymru Submission to Rural Development Sub Committee Inquiry into the future of the uplands in Wales. http://www.assemblywales.org/6_rspb_formatted.pdf
12. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.16. Condition of a) riverine species, and b) riverine habitats in Special Areas of Conservation in Wales. http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx
13. P. J. Johnes et al, 2007. Land use scenarios for England and Wales: evaluation of management options to support ‘good ecological status’ in surface freshwaters. Soil Use and Management, Vol. 23 (Suppl. 1), pp176–194.
14. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.16. Condition of a) riverine species, and b) riverine habitats in Special Areas of Conservation in Wales. http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx.
15. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.11 Threats to biodiversity in Wales. http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/Resources/tabid/82/Default.aspx