The Changing Face of Welsh Farming; THE DAILY POST'S RURAL AFFAIRS EDITOR ANDREW FORGRAVE MARKS A CENTURY AND A HALF OF AGRICULTURAL ACHIEVEMENT
Byline: ANDREW FORGRAVE
IN the vast swell of agricultural history, 150 years is barely a ripple, yet in that time the face of Welsh farming has altered beyond recognition, bringing huge changes to the landscape, communities and lifestyles.
When the Daily Post was first launched, the initial enthusiasm of the agricultural revolution, which had in any case been slow to reach Wales, had been blunted. Farmers in Wales were still adjusting to the price collapses that followed the ending of the French wars (1793-1815), the arrival of cheaper imports from America and Australia, and the enclosure acts, which saw 500,000 acres of upland common hived off by estate owners.
It was against this background of rural depression that, 16 years earlier, farmers had led the Rebecca Riots - this agricultural militancy was to become a recurring feature over the ensuing 150 years, through the tithe wars of the early 20th century (see panel) to the fuel protests of 2001.
In the early to mid 19th century, many farmers had good cause to nurse grievances, especially in Wales where large landowners held sway and rents were generally high. Country people flooded to the cities, drawn by the emerging steel and coal industries. By 1851 only about a third of the population worked in agriculture, two decades later Wales had become an industrial rather than an agricultural society.
For those left behind in the countryside, oats were the main crop, especially in the upland areas, although barley and wheat were gaining favour in Anglesey. Largely, however, stock rearing was more important than cereal growing and, just as today, thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and ponies were grazed on pastures and moors during the summer months.
Difficulties in securing enough winter fodder often meant cattle were slaughtered at Calan Gaeaf (November 1). It meant most country folk had to survive the winter months on salted meat on holdings of less than 60 acres.
For many families, it was a fraught existence, as noted by George Borrows who made his first foray into Wales the year before the Daily Post was born.
Farmers, along with their wives and children often lived no better than common labourers in their smoke-filled and damp upland shacks. 'Several of the lower kind of farmers and their dependants,' said one observer, 'have their tables as scantily supplied with the luxuries of salted bacon, butter and cheese, as even the paupers they are forced to relieve' . For many hill farmers, life was a constant battle against gorse, heather and reeds. Most work was done by hand and, like rural diets, was extremely monotonous.
At busy times of the year, such as lambing, shearing and harvesting, co-operation between local farms was common. Farmers were repaid in labour, villagers in kind - 'debt butter' was a common form of repayment in west Wales.
This feature of rural life remained in place until the mid 20th century, its demise is now greatly mourned by farmers shackled to the impersonal efficiency of modern machinery.
In the mid 19th century fields were being rapidly enclosed - the majority of Wales' picture-postcard stone walls were thrown up in a period of frenzied building in the 1850s. Contemporary tourism in Wales owes much to these relics of Victorian zeal.
In some parts of Wales, oxen were still being used to plough soil, along with Welsh Black cattle. But the lightweight Rotherham plough, which could be pulled by horses, was rapidly gaining ascendancy and the last Welsh oxen team was finally disbanded in Glamorgan in 1899.
The use of scythes for haymaking was also on the wane, and another era drawing to a close was that of cattle droving. Huge herds of Welsh cattle - and some oxen - were driven to the big English cities by drovers and their Welsh sheepdogs, passing through cattle-shoeing stations and paying halfpenny rents for wayside fields. …