Conservation shepherding at Hafod y Llan
By combining traditional shepherding skills with current conservation objectives, Hafod y Llan is leading on an innovative trial for habitat management.
Since the purchse of Hafod y Llan in 2000, we've been managing the farm to protect and restore its most sensitive habitats, like the upland heaths and blanket bogs.
Sheep numbers have been halved from the original 4000 count, and a herd of Welsh Black cattle has been introduced to graze the mountain and woods in the summer.
By 2010, habitats were showing good signs of recovery with vegetation growing taller and finally having the chance to bloom and set seed. However, this also resulted in localised undergrazing and overgrazing which has not been good for the habitats.
It was clear that reducing sheep numbers further would not solve this problem, nor would it help the farm enterprise. To control where the sheep graze, a full time shepherd was deemed the most appropriate option.
Challenges of a mountain shepherd
Shepherding sheep for conservation has not yet become a popular option in the UK, although it is widely used in the Alps and Pyrenees.
This is the first known example of full time shepherding for conservation on Welsh and English mountains. Apart from the cold and wet climate challenging British shepherds, one of the main challenges with this project is the way Welsh mountain sheep graze.
At Hafod y Llan, sheep graze the open mountain within their hefts, or ‘cynefin’ in Welsh. Each ewe has her own 'territory' which she will teach to her replacement ewe lamb, ensuring that the flock is evenly distributed across the mountainside. In this way, there is no need for walls or fences between farms.
Conservation shepherding at Hafod y Llan needs to focus on modifying the existing hefts. Sheep hefted to the upper mountain ridges need to be re-heft to lower slopes, away from the sensitive ridges. This will take years, until the new generation of sheep have replaced the old ewes.
How we do it
Since 2014, a shepherding project has been funded through a Section 16 Agreement with Natural Resources Wales.
Every day, the shepherd carefully moves sheep out of the sensitive sheep-free zones, and into the grazing zones. By 2015, a second shepherd was secured in order to provide cover seven days a week, for most daylight hours.
The vision for Hafod y Llan is to have flower rich mountain tops paired with a grazed valley bottom. In this way, key sites will improve for nature conservation while maintaining a working hill farm system.
The vegetation and sheep are being monitored throughout this five year project. The recovery of plants will provide evidence of the efficacy of shepherding. The impact of shepherding on hefted flocks is also of great interest. This information will be valuable for the successful implementation of shepherding on other sensitive mountain sites.