SHAPING THE WILD: Wisdom From A Welsh Hill Farm
Calon, 2023, 232 pages
Hardback: £18.99 | ISBN: 1915279348
SARN HELEN: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present And Future
Granta, 2023, 288 pages
Hardback: £16.99 | ISBN: 1783788095
Review by Mick Green
Here are two books about Wales touching on its different environments, history and culture. Both books come from different angles, both are fascinating, readable and relevant for thinking on the future direction of Wales in a changing environment. In addition, both are beautifully illustrated: Shaping the Wind by Peter Hanauer and Sarn Helen by Jackie Morris.
In Shaping the Wild David Elias explores the tensions between farming and conservation through the story of a single farm in North Wales, its place in wildlife conservation and culture, and how this small farm reflects wider contemporary issues in the region. David is well placed to write this book. For many years he was Warden of the Berwyn Mountains, near the farm in question. David came into post with the then Nature Conservancy Council, as an outsider, when there were many tensions arising from the implementation of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. I’ll state an interest here as he was also my boss during several survey seasons I undertook there and he has been a friend ever since. His grounding in the locality allows him to explore how land management issues have evolved and their impact on habitats, species, farming methods and local identity.
The book starts with an introduction to the farm and its family of owners and then follows a roughly chronological wander through the farming year, using every opportunity to meander to examine differing habitats, changing farming practices and the impacts of the development of conservation legislation on the farm. Although Craig-y-Tan is not a typical farm (if there is such a thing) it represents many of the influences and pressures associated with farming, conservation and local language and social factors. The farm is a relatively small upland holding, within the Eryri National Park. It is covered by designations such as SSSI and SAC (Special Areas of Conservation) which restrict the nature of farming there, but also attracts some useful subsidies to help with the income. The sometimes conflicting nature of goals for farming and for conservation are addressed throughout the book, but David also makes clear that many of the conservation ‘features’ of the designations are the result of many years of farming on the land, its species and habitats.
David’s knowledge and love of natural history come across throughout the book. We visit the main habitats of the farm one by one, and they are brought to life by his wonderful descriptions. From the woodlands where each tree is “mossed up to its knees and encrusted with lichens at its fingertips” to the open moors where there are “ragged mounds of brown peat about 10 feet high with topknots of heather and moss”, each habitat is lovingly described before we examine how it evolves, what are the influences on it and how it might fare in future. This is tied in throughout with the farming year and how the differing calls on the land are, or could be, dealt with.
Towards the end of the book he looks at rewilding and the possible impact on aspects of this on Craig-y-Tan. For example the farm could not survive if it had to reduce its mountain grazing any further – it is already at a low level for which the farm receives payments. If these payments stop then the farm could not survive unless it increased its stocking levels with potential adverse impacts on the upland habitats and the carbon storage the peatland habitats provide as an ‘ecosystem service’. He discusses an abandoned area that was previously forestry to see how the landscape might evolve, but the likes of woodland cover is seen as an anathema to farmers – to not graze is to ‘lose the mountain’.
The farming fraternity is at the centre of the Welsh language and the cultural issues of maintaining these communities is discussed. Would these people survive and shift to managing ecosystem services like flood buffering and carbon storage from the land, rather than sheep farming? Is farming for food too engrained in the farmers’ blood to allow a change to becoming conservation managers if funding was available? It is an interesting discussion and as David points out, we have hundreds of years of farming and only about 50 years of specific management for conservation. He concludes by looking forward as post-Brexit agricultural support schemes are being developed in Wales and considering how these need to be integrated into farming, conservation, local culture, and climate resilience.
Although biased, as I know the author and love the area in which the book is embedded, I consider that the powerful writing and descriptions will be of interest to many and will serve to enhance the book’s wider relevance.
Sarn Helen is a very different book, but one that also addresses the influence of the past on the Welsh culture and landscape and looks at the potential impacts of changing policy and climate (both meteorological and political) on the future of Wales.
Sarn Helen is a Roman road that wanders from the south to the north coast of Wales. We follow the author, Tom Bullough, on a walk along its route. The subject matter is wide ranging, including musings on ancient archaeology, modern politics and the nature of being Welsh. Climate change, land use and agriculture are also discussed, overlapping with Shaping the Wild.
The book follows the walk, chronologically and geographically from South to North. This takes place in a number of episodes over a year, interrupted by lockdowns and other events. The walk is interspersed with the author interviewing climate scientists about possible future scenarios for Wales and the whole planet, linking them to his own engagement with the topic. These are presented as transcripts of his discussions and at first seem a bit out of place, but as the walk continues, they sit naturally within the narrative.
The author is storyteller. This is his first work of non-fiction following four novels, and it shows in the prose. As well as visiting ancient sites, post – industrial landscapes and wild hills, we are introduced to some distinctive characters along the way. Some of these were pre-arranged but others are the random discussions of a traveller. Although Sarn Helen is a Roman road, Welsh geology and landform forbids a straight line, so the route takes us through many landscapes. Like Shaping the Wild, it is wonderfully descriptive about the habitats through which we travel. Walking above the Dyfi valley, close to where I live, the author notes “the gnarled slopes fall to the Dyfi river – the river now revealed in that expanse, growing with each sky-coloured meander until it spreads in a bed of sand, drains into the dim grey sea.”
Throughout his walk the author visits many monuments such as forts and places of worship. He notes how sites of Christian worship are often placed on or next too much older places. He talks about the ‘age of Saints’ in the early Christian period growing with the developing Welsh language, and hence Wales itself as a concept and a country.
Towards the end of the book we find out more of his personal interest in climate change as we travel to London where Bullough is answering to charges arising from his involvement in an Extinction Rebellion demonstration. The powerful personal statement he read out in court is reproduced in full. To address the current crises, as he sees it, he suggests in the conclusion of the book, that actions need to come from within Wales if they are to succeed. He wonders if environmental issues and awareness is sufficiently embedded here? Returning us to his ‘age of Saints’ he decides they are. Personally, I am not so sure.
Both books take us into the heart of the Welsh landscape, but in very different ways. Both show how the culture of Wales is integral to addressing current environmental priorities. They both provide fascinating histories and social commentary alongside the descriptions of landscape and nature, and they highlight vital environmental issues. I hope our politicians read them and are duly influenced.