Following the two walk / talk events arranged between National Park’s staff and the local community on the land between Trefin and Aberfelin, I was invited by Nigel Davies, a friend, and neighbour, to explore the area with him to learn something of its history. On the evening of Sunday 30th May in perfect sunshine, Nigel and I set off to walk the land and it was soon clear that he had a strong personal connection with the fields and their agricultural uses going back to the 1960s. His family had owned some of the fields in the past, and as a lad, and later in life, he used to help with the farming work and had many happy memories to look back on.
Nigel’s recollections revealed many changes that have taken place in agriculture locally over the years, reflecting the situation in the country generally. In particular, everything related to farming has increased in size and complexity since his youth. Field sizes have grown with the removal of hedges and walls such that the many small, strip fields that were common in the mid-20th Century and earlier have largely disappeared to be replaced by open, windswept expanses with few features and little cover. In order to deal with the larger fields and the new processes that are now part of farming life, farm machinery has become larger, heavier, and more complex. As he noted, thankfully the changes at Trwyn Llwyd have been considerably less marked than in most areas resulting in them retaining much of their biodiversity and environmental value.
We started our walk at the Trefin end of the footpath leading into the fields from Heol Crwys and my education into the local changes over the years started immediately. “Of course, everyone’s tractors and machinery used to come down this track to the fields as it was the only access,” Nigel told me. “Manure to be spread going down and meadow hay on trailers with us boys on top coming back later in the year.” It was hard to imagine now that the track would have been wide enough, but this was in the days when tractors were small – Fergies, Fordson Dextas, and their like – and in greater sympathy with their surroundings. The lumbering John Deere and New Holland giants that dominate the landscape nowadays and crush all before them would have demolished the walls and banks bounding the track long before they could reach the fields.
As we continued along the track, known locally as ‘dog poo alley’, careful to avoid the piles of excrement that irresponsible local dog owners routinely fail to pick up and dispose of in the bin provided at the top of the track but so often ignored, we reached the allotment plots leased by GTI for community use. These will soon be the subject of a new agreement with National Parks which now owns the land to ensure that the interests of all are protected. Here, Nigel told me that the fields behind the village in the North End area used to hold two ponds and a stream that flowed down towards the allotment site where it pooled before disappearing underground to emerge further down towards the cliffs. Nigel recounted how, when winters were harsher than they are now, this wet area would freeze providing a wonderful natural skating rink for the village youngsters and the young at heart.
Taking a left fork in the track through a gateway, we set off across a meadow densely carpeted with a rich diversity of grasses and flowering plants that buzzed with insects. The track was now barely visible as nature had taken it over, slight variations in the plant cover being the only clue that we were following the route taken in the past by tractors, trailers, and implement-wielding farmworkers. “This field used to be 3 separate units back then, each under separate ownership,” explained Nigel. “All the fields were smaller, and there were at least 6 local owners who farmed fields in the area including John George, Emlyn Cotton, the Maddocks family, the Bevan family, Mr. Rees and Mr. Reynolds. There should be records and plans of the old fields in the County archives or with local families somewhere”, he told me. We agreed that it would be valuable to try to find any documents or photographs to show the changes that have occurred over time
We paused to explore the rich diversity of plants around us which included numerous species of grass, red and white clover, buttercup, speedwell, dandelion, sheep’s-bit, bird’s-foot trefoil, plantains, daisy, dock, lesser hop trefoil, sticky mouse-ear chickweed, hawk-bit, red and white campion, cow parsley, knapweed, thistle, yarrow, and sorrel to name but a few. Historically, these fields have received little or no inputs of artificial fertiliser, insecticides, or pesticides unlike those of the surrounding large farms which are routinely subjected to repeated dousing with cocktails of damaging chemicals. The difference is stark. Fields on the sloping land opposite were a virtual monoculture of ryegrass destined for providing several cuts of silage throughout the year with the loss of any breeding possibility for ground-nesting birds. Any wildflowers for the pollinating insects and cover for wildlife was confined to the narrow margins, so different to the rich environment in which we stood. As we watched, a lone fox, exposed in the openness of the mown field opposite, was questing for any dead creatures left by the harvester.
“We would never take more than one cut off the fields in a year and that cut was for hay in those days. I don’t think these fields have ever been cut for silage,” Nigel explained, as we were examining our surroundings for different species of plants and remarking on the rich mix all around us. “Everyone used to help with the haymaking. After the mower had done its job, people would pile in with wooden hay rakes and pitchforks to spread and turn the cut sward so that it would dry evenly in the sun. Sometimes it was stacked in stooks to let the wind through it before baling as it was vital that it was not taken in damp when it could overheat and spoil or even catch fire.” Nigel recounted the gatherings of friends, family, and other village people seated on the ground or on hay bales during a break in the work and surrounded by bags and boxes of sandwiches, bread, and cheese, meat, fruit, and drinks. As they ate and drank, they exchanged news and gossip interspersed with memories peppered with jokes, and laughter mingled with the birdsong. “It was a real community then and we all pulled together,” said Nigel with a wry smile. “And when we broke the hay bales open in the barn for the cows and sheep in the winter, the air would fill with the sweet smells of summer days with all the memories they held.”
Breasting a rise and entering another field we came across a wide and dense patch of bushes and scrub that ran along a boundary between two fields. This was an old green lane that had become overgrown since Nigel first knew it and if one pushed in a little way, the remnants of the old path could still be seen, a secret passageway now for badgers and foxes. Nigel told me that he recalled this being the site of an old quarry that provided material for the dry stone walls in earlier times and when we approached from the uphill direction, we could see that the land fell sharply away into the tangled vegetation and the presence of a hidden small quarry became a distinct possibility.
Whilst some hedges and walls were removed to merge fields, there are many remaining still which provide valuable habitats for wildlife. The value of these hedges was evidenced by the tracks of badgers leading out from the denser thickets and the constant background buzz of bird song as we toured the land, with linnets, house sparrows, dunnocks, whitethroats, chaffinches, goldfinches, and stonechats singing from hedge top vantage points and the depths of gorse and blackthorn. Swallows and martins were hawking over the field margins and rooks, jackdaws and magpies were stalking the open grassed areas for insects before returning to the sanctuary of the bushes Nigel recalled even more birds being present in the past with the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song of yellowhammers being a regular backdrop to work in the fields. They are now very scarce. He welcomed the National Parks’ proposal to restore and re-create hedgerows, walls, and areas of scrub as a means of restoring the environment and expressed the wish that it would return to the wildlife haven he remembered.
In the distance across the bay, a chough called as it flew to join its mate feeding on the wild, close-cropped headland above Aberfelin. This is one of many species that will benefit from the new management regime of the area promised by the National Parks and as Nigel and I made our way back from the cliff edge through the fields to the track we looked forward to a time in the near future when the village community would once again join together to work in the salt-laden air, this time to help the Parks staff to conserve the beauty that is Trwyn Llwyd as an example for future generations.