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Thinking like a sheep to plant a tree

Welsh Mountain lambs on Hafod Y Llan farm, Snowdonia
Welsh mountain lambs | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

An unusual project is encouraging rangers and volunteers to think like sheep when they plant trees in Dyffryn Mymbyr, Eryri (Snowdonia). Discover what’s behind this new approach.

Why think like a sheep?

Tree-planting projects usually involve removing all livestock from the area by putting up fences or walls. In Eryri (Snowdonia) some new ideas are being trialled without using fences that involve planting trees in such a way that they are difficult, or impossible, for livestock to eat.

‘Think like a sheep and ask yourself, “can I eat that tree?” If the answer is no, then you’ve done a great job,’ explains Area Ranger Simon Rogers to his gang of volunteers.

Clever planting techniques

By using the natural features of the land and some clever planting techniques it’s possible to plant trees where grazing livestock is still present.

‘Sabre planting’ involves planting trees at 90 degrees to a steep slope, helping to keep the vulnerable leading shoots as far out of reach as possible. Natural protection involves using features of the landscape to make the trees difficult to reach. Useful features include gorse, bracken, steep slopes, boulders, riverbanks and rocky outcrops.

The right tree for the right place

Carefully selecting the trees that are planted can also help. The trees used at Dyffryn Mymbyr are sourced locally from Gwynant Trees who collect the seeds in Nant Gwynant and Capel Curig. The trees are around 150cm tall and grown in pots, with the height helping to keep the leading shoots out of reach and the pots playing their part in developing a good, strong root ball.

Quality, not quantity

The success of the project is not measured in how many trees are planted, it’s all about the quality of the planting to ensure that as many trees survive as possible. Volunteers are encouraged to take their time, study the landscape and ‘think like a sheep’ before selecting a location to plant each tree.

Volunteers have planted 3,000 trees over the past three years and around 75 per cent have survived. The aim is to plant a total of 5,000 trees by the end of the five-year ‘Ffridd for Future’ project, which is funded by the Royal Oak Foundation.

A view of the Dyffryn Mymbyr valley in Snowdonia, Wales
Dyffryn Mymbyr valley | © National Trust Images

The benefits of tree planting

Dyffryn Mymbyr is the missing link between the two wooded valleys around Nant Gwynant and Capel Curig. Extending the tree-cover within the ‘ffridd’ area of the farm can help to improve the connectivity between the two areas of woodland either side, allowing birds and small mammals the chance to expand their ranges too. It means there will be better, and more continuous, tree coverage through this part of Eryri (Snowdonia).

Most of the planting has happened in gullies and beside streams as this is where the best natural protection is found but planting along ravines too can have some additional benefits. Trees help slow the flow of water during flash floods and can also improve water quality. The rain which lands in Dyffryn Mymbyr ultimately ends up in the Conwy river, which is well known for flooding. The hope is that planting trees here will reduce flooding downstream and improve water quality.

Providing shelter

Once the trees become established, they can also act as shelter belts for the mountain ewes, which can greatly improve animal welfare and productivity for the farmer. Overall, this style of planting is a lot less costly and creates less of a visual impact on the landscape compared with fencing off an area for tree planting.

What’s next?

So far, the project has shown that new trees can be established in a farmed landscape at a relatively low cost and with no loss of grazing area. The benefits to wildlife are clear and the additional benefits of slow, clean water and shelter for livestock make the ideas particularly exciting.

The results of the project will be used to show other farmers, landowners and rangers the benefits of the approach. Hopefully it will result in more trees being established on upland farms across the country for the benefit of wildlife, livestock, water and perhaps most of all, the trees themselves.

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