Why rural Wales’ post-Brexit fate chills me to the bone

Rural Wales. Picture by Jim Bowen (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

In the Welsh sci-fi novel Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd the protagonist travels to the year 2033 and visits a dystopian future Wales – now called Western England – covered by military ranges and forest.

Wales’ rural society has died out completely, and its culture with it. Here he meets the last Welsh speaker who recites Plasm 23 – ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ – before herself perishing.

Although a very good novel, Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd, published 60 years ago this year, was written as a piece of nationalist propaganda. The aim was to shock 1957’s readers into action.

Well, take a good look at yourself, Wales, because the novel may have got it right: In a few years, your famous landscape could look rather similar to Islwyn Ffowc Elis’ nightmare scenario.

Wales is mostly agricultural land, but only 5% of it is good for growing crops. 80%, however, is fine for grazing. That means sheep, sheep and more sheep.

We may groan at the sheep jokes but Wales’ ‘look’ – the patchwork of undulating grassy fields and craggy rocks – has been cultivated by these animals over hundreds of years.

This is all about to change with Brexit. If Wales crashes out of the EU with no deal, Welsh farmers face tariffs of almost 50% on meat.

About a third of lamb in the UK is exported and a big chunk of that meat comes from Wales. Sheep farming, never a booming industry, is about to get a lot less viable.

The UK Government could, of course, come to a deal with the EU that is favourable for farmers, although this is unlikely as industries closer to London are likely to be the priority.

But even then, farmers will lose a big chunk of their income. According to the Farmer’s Union of Wales subsidies from the EU are worth about 80% of Welsh farmers’ incomes.

Farmers only earn an average of £13,000 in Wales – a minimum wage job, basically. They would be on £2,600 without EU subsidies.

Wales’ future? Picture by Dan Cook (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rewilding

Brexit is so disastrous for farmers I’m not sure why so many I spoke to leading up to the vote seemed so keen on the idea. Why Welsh Conservative leader and farmer, Andrew RT Davies, wants it, I can’t fathom.

But it’s not just farmers that will take a hit. Take them out of the equation, and the entire environmental, economic and cultural ecosystem of rural Wales collapses:

  • Wales is going to look radically different, becoming mostly woodland rather than green fields. Picturesque ‘Wild Wales’ is gone. What effect will that have on tourism?
  • There’s an industry of vets, shops, abattoirs, auctioneers and suppliers built around serving farmer’s needs. How do we sustain the rural economy?
  • If the rural economy has its legs kicked out from under it, how then do we save Wales’ language and culture? How do we stop the brain drain and encourage the young to stay in their communities?

You could argue that not all of these changes will be bad, of course. There are highly respected environmentalists who have long argued that sheep are a plague on Wales’ landscape.

The romantic idea of a ‘rewilded’ Wales full of beavers and wolves is one that appeals to many.

But the problem with ‘rewilding’ rural Wales is that the country isn’t just a park – there are people living here too who have their own history, language and culture.

Take away one Jenga block – the agricultural economy – and what gives a large portion of Wales its already fragile sense of identity could go with it.

We could soon be facing the uninhabited, forbidding forest of Western England as prophesied by Islwyn Ffowc Elis. And it may be too late to do anything about it.


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Court Medlicott
Guest
Court Medlicott

Interesting piece. Your second point, about the death of the farming industry in Wales, is something that would need to be faced up to soon regardless though. With ever-increasing research in to plant-based diets and meat alternatives it’s time for a change. I realise this may be bad news economically for large portions of Wales, but morally it’s a huge, welcome step forward.

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

‘morally’?

Our species eats meat. You’re fine to be a vegetarian or a vegan, but don’t impose it upon other people by bringing sanctimonious morally into it coupled with the word ‘forward’ to insinuate that those who value traditional diets and meats are somehow backwards and regressive. Meat alternatives, no thanks.

We should focus on buying Welsh products at every level of our society, not singing a trumpet of self-righteousness about what people eat.

Gruff
Guest
Gruff

Capitalist and Welshman:

Your concept of moral vegetarianism is a couple of decades out of date. It’s no longer a welfare only issue, but a sustainable land use and climate driven issue. And that in itself is very quickly moving from a moral cause to a pragmatic approach to human survival.

We cannot afford to continue eating meat at this rate. Our meat eating “tradition” is fast approaching its sell by date.

Sibrydionmawr
Guest
Sibrydionmawr

As the piece points out, only 5% of land in Wales is suitable for arable, and 80% for pastoralism, so that would suggest that the only sustainable way of food production on this land is livestock, sheep and cattle, as it ever was. About the only alternative to sheep and cattle is conifer plantations, or wind turbines, neither of which appeal to the blow-in white settler vegetable munchers who largely don’t give a stuff about the Welsh language, or it’s speakers. I’ve long regarded them as England’s cultural shock troops, or colonists, who are encouraged to come to Wales as… Read more »

flofflach
Guest

thought of your reply as I waited for the bus yesterday and listened to a “blow-in white settler vegetable muncher” speaking Cymraeg. I find it is the meat eating blow-ins, nearer retirement age, who don’t like wind turbines

RdWd
Guest
RdWd

I understand the economical importance of sheep farming in Wales, but perhaps it’s time to put that aside for the greater good of the planet? Obviously, for better or worse, sheep-farming is tied into the cultural identity of Wales, but there’s no reason why we cannot make reforested regions of Wales a cultural signifier of Wales of the future. If I’m given the choice between a rewilded and biodiverse Wales, that depends on reforestation to capture carbon dioxide, then I’ll take that over clinging to the cultural tradition of sheep farming. I remember reading about how mid Wales is a… Read more »

Margaret Hall
Guest
Margaret Hall

There is already a lot of forest in Wales, but if it’s the wrong kind of forest, it contains hardly any birds or other wildlife. The native broadleaved woodlands are the best for biodiversity, not conifers. Actually, one of the best CO2 stores is the endangered peat bog. They’re better than forests for capturing and holding CO2.

billprice
Guest
billprice

In the post Brexit world we will need that Blitz/ allotment spirit, ‘Dig for Victory’.
There is huge sustainability issues if the food chain is going to go through major upheaval at the end of March 2019.

martinowen
Guest
martinowen

The notion of a sylvan glade is attractive – but misguided. The unmanaged landscape becomes a bracken and bramble jungle a long time (if ever) before it becomes anything like the beautiful vestigial oak woods. Not a pretty sight and not much use for tourist income. The managed landscape of cedar or whatever other cash crop we choose to plant we already know is very dull following decades of FC planting. As far as carbon capture is concerned upland bogs are more effective.

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

I would like to know what research shows only 5 % of Wales is good for growing crops. Illustrations and forecasting is fair game. I live in an area once heavily mined and exploited. There was no forward planning to deal with its extinction. The key to all change is who is driving it. And who profits. Inevitably it will not be those who live in rural Wales. I hear the sounds of exploitation again. The warnings have been given of an area called western England. I see this as a real threat. Add climate change and we are heading… Read more »

boicymraeg
Guest

In defence of George Monbiot (who I assume is the “highly respected environmentalists” you mention), he addresses the issue of the rural economy (with specific reference to Wales) in his book Feral and makes it very clear that he is aware that Wales is not a park, nor should it be. He makes the point that the existing subsidy system is disastrous and primarily benefits wealthy landowners as well as promoting pointless work e.g. paying many farmers to keep unproductive land clear of trees for no reason at all. The book is well worth a read. Ellis’s dystopian vision, incidentally,… Read more »

RdWd
Guest
RdWd

Indeed, the uplands bogs are great at capturing carbon, it’d be misguided to replace one with the other. As for the forestry commission’s planting of pines and the like, I do agree in that their plantations can come across as dull – but I’d like to hope we’ve learnt from it all these last few decades. If managed – and perhaps not used solely as a cash-crop, coastal (and giant) redwood groves in the U.K. do spectacularly (the largest coastal redwood stand in the U.K. is in Center Parcs, Longleat, Wiltshire). They provide a range of habitats for fauna and… Read more »

Thomas Moseley
Guest

I am not a farmer and have no knowledge of what is now economic or feasible in farming. I only mention that when I was a boy in Mid Wales during the war, crops were grown where now sheep graze: wheat, barley mangles sugar beet and potatoes were common. Even if they were made compulsory by wartime regulations the fact that they were grown at all shows that it was possible. The topography pf Wales has not changed much.apart where it has been built upon. Now there are sheep everywhere. Why?.

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

I simply can’t believe the negativity on here about sheep farming. It is not as if we are going to embark on de-forestation to create land for sheep farming. It has already happened and not even remotely recently – trying to reverse that would do very little for the global climate challenge and could have a severe effect on local people, culture and communities – something environmentalist idealists are not supposed to do. If these sorts of ideas were being presented in Africa, people would be up in arms about it. There is ever increasing need for good arable land… Read more »

Dafis
Guest
Dafis

A well stated realist environmentalist case. Beats turning the country into a haven for “off road pursuits” recreational camps, and all those other activities that will require a final clearance of any indigenous folk just going about the business of earning a living ( just!) .

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

Relying on sheep, an industry brought in by the Norman French…to last forever is not wise though

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

we had sheep long before the normans. theres evidence of sheep in Dorset in neolithic times

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

The example of New Zealand is highly instructive in this case. Prior to when the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the UK was the main overseas market for New Zealand lamb and beef, importing 86% of all New Zealand lamb production. By entering the EEC and introducing steep tariff barriers which had never been there before, we pulled the rug out from under the New Zealand lamb industry, and the New Zealand government at the time responded by heavily subsidising New Zealand farmers. However, after a little over a decade, the level of subsidy being given was simply unsustainable… Read more »

Cymraes
Guest
Cymraes

If you would be content with the New Zealand’s lack of Welfare of Animals and no rights for walkers to roam footpaths I can assure you that conscientious Welsh farmers are not……….

CapM
Guest
CapM

“All in all, though, if the example of New Zealand is anything to go by, the elimination of the twin evils of over-dependence upon a single export market and heavy government subsidy seems to have done the agricultural industry a power of good. ” There is a difference between a healthy agricultural sector and healthy socio-economic-cultural rural communities. As I understand it this article expresses a concern about the latter. Since you’ve taken New Zealand as a possible role model, their stats show that NZ sheep numbers have halved since the early 1970s. I would think that the numbers of… Read more »

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

The New Zealand example wouldn’t work for Wales. We would not survive the drop in national flock size which happened in New Zealand. Also, NZ lamb now relies on export markets like Japan, Australia and North America. Hello! England and Europe are our version of that! Wake up, please! Rewilding is another issue. What is sensible is paying farmers for sustainable land management. However there is no proposal in CAP for mass rewilding, and converting CAP from food production payments to rewilding payments would be even less financially viable than sheep farming is. So until there is a costed and… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

You’ve missed my point somewhat: as of 1973, England was New Zealand’s version of that, too, but on a much bigger scale: 86% of production went to the UK, and we turned our backs on them by joining the EEC and left them high and dry. Once we’re out of the EU, Japan, Australia and North America will be available to us as export markets as well, since we’ll no longer be cut off from them by the current high EU tariff barriers. Actually, though, one of New Zealand’s biggest export markets is China, which is only half as far… Read more »

CapM
Guest
CapM

“You’ve missed my point somewhat: as of 1973, England was New Zealand’s version of that, too, but on a much bigger scale: 86% of production went to the UK, and we turned our backs on them by joining the EEC and left them high and dry. Once we’re out of the EU, Japan, Australia and North America will be available to us as export markets as well, since we’ll no longer be cut off from them by the current high EU tariff barriers. Actually, though, one of New Zealand’s biggest export markets is China, which is only half as far… Read more »

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

The realism of any major change affecting a key industry is subject to impacting on both socio and economic indicators of any or all sectors. The extractive industries are a reasonable pointer to an example of what happens to static communities solely dependent on them for their livelihoods. Only decline and despair. This isn’t intrinsically about what type of farming, or environmental impacts or choices, as important as these are, but the survival of rural communities and the very existence of culture shaped from the medieval age. The exposure to chill winds of a structural nature will blow for many… Read more »

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

As we are we will be unable to respond.

Clive King
Guest
Clive King

The article documents well one important aspect that makes up the future of rural areas. There are others. Drive through parts of rural US you encounter small towns like Sonora in Tuolumne County in Eastern Californina which is riding a wave of heroin and crystal meth addiction feed by despiration and hopelessness of young and middle aged people with no hope or future. Structural economic change eliminated opportunities for those under 40 and a new breed of entrepreneur saw an opportunity. By the time the problems were recognised, they had taken hold. Rural areas are not immune. While I hope… Read more »

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

Useful insight from Sonora, America. Really apocalyptic. The critical issue touched upon is the apparent lack of resources and solutions gifted to Wales, to effect the changes we know are coming does the line.

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

Tourism cannot be the main stay industry that will support major revenue for Wales and provides sustainability. This can only come from eg a much more expansive renewable energy sector and exploiting rich resources of Wales. We are already lagging behind other Europeans in manufacturing and implementation. If there is a read across to the agricultural industry sector then so much the better.

But planning for change must begin quickly and in partnership with the rural corporations.

Efnisien fab Euroswydd
Guest
Efnisien fab Euroswydd

Your apocalyptic vision could well come true, Ifan, which is why serious work should be done on how to mitigate Brexit’s effects. And, no, tourism is emphatically not the solution.

Farmers and the industries that support them are skilled, and talented. Those need to be put to good use.

WAG needs to play its part (eg infrastructure – road, rail & blanket 5G coverage). Given half an opportunity, these industrious, skilled risk-takers could thrive.

Of course, all this would be so much easier with independence…

gertomosGeraint
Guest

Get planting crops in the vale of Clwyd and polytunnels. Grade A land wasted on sheep grazing

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

There are very interesting issues here. It’s very easy to say remove all subsidies and leave it all to resolve itself, through the whims of market forces. The comments linking to the decline of the South Wales Valleys are very apt. Letting industries simply die out without any planning or investment for the aftermath creates huge costly problems and any transition if it’s going to happen needs to be planned, managed and the alternative future has to be created, before destroying what already exists. The tourism and forestry options need to be vigorously challenged and we can’t simply allow unscrupulous… Read more »

Hadrian
Guest
Hadrian

Haven’t got the reference, but in his article Monbiot claims, ” by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports”. If true, we need to develop our internal market!

Jim
Guest
Jim

There’s nothing traditional about farming in Wales now anyway. We make it sound like it’s some kind of timeless tradition that’s about to be wiped away by Brexit. It’s not. Much of Wales’ landscape today is a product of Enclosure, which saw many smaller farmers and tenants turfed off the land, where they migrated to the bigger towns and cities to become what used to be the Working Class (which ain’t what it used to be either). To what extent was Enclosure a product of colonisation by England? Large swathes of upland Wales in particular are registered Common Land, and… Read more »

Joniesta
Guest
Joniesta

Re wiliding is a dream for many but a final nail in the coffin for rural Wales and it’s culture. It will consign us to be the playground of England. Make no mistake about it, if the consequences of Brexit on farming is high tariffs cheap imports this will effect meat, dairy and arable farmers alike. RT Davies et al were idiots during the EU referendum and duped many farmers to believing that voting out would get rid of the red tape. Of course this is an untruth. The public will want the traceability of the product and have confidence… Read more »

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

The idea that people simple move to where there are better prospects is the hallmark of how civilisations are created. The one key component is the availability of employment and opportunities around it. People will not simply move to areas in decline. It doesn’t make sense. The whole process of renewal of areas is a major economic project requiring significant capital and careful planning over many decades.

Jenny wren.
Guest
Jenny wren.

Why would you want to stay in the EU? We fought the last war so that we wouldn’t be taken over by Germany, now ‘people’ want to be taken over by the EU. They are bleeding us dry, and when we are weak enough they will then take over all our assets, if they are not doing it already. This government has no spine at all to stand up for it’s own people.

Meurig
Guest
Meurig

Sadly, the article is a realistic assessment. Comments like this one above are so removed from reality it’s laughable: “Once we’re out of the EU, Japan, Australia and North America will be available to us as export markets as well, since we’ll no longer be cut off from them by the current high EU tariff barriers. Actually, though, one of New Zealand’s biggest export markets is China, which is only half as far away from Wales as it is from New Zealand.” There are already some Welsh Lamb sales in Canada. But China, Japan, USA and many other countries are… Read more »

Nick
Guest
Nick

I wonder how many of those commenting on this blog would have supported the closure of Wales coal mines in the 80s? If they believe their environmental arguments that much they they would presumably have been wholeheartedly on Thatcher’s side given how coal is undeniably many times more damaging than agriculture. I suspect the majority of those commenting in support of policies which would decimate communities are left-leaning. Someone could write an interesting PhD on the way in which left wing views have come to mean something very different from what they once did.

cubespawnJames Jones
Guest

Many very clear and well reasoned comments here, quite a different environment than most of the web 😉 What follows is a little self serving, but the intent is to get an honest assessment from one or many of your analytical minds regarding a different approach to the future. Rather than focusing on agriculture as a basis for export to generate revenue for economic stability, what about turning a little more inward an approaching Wales economy as a closed system, for the source of this view: I am attempting the very initial stages of building a self sufficient homestead/village, I’m… Read more »