Horsepower and hats (Stepping back in time: Part 1)

By Mariecia Fraser

Old photos and films can give such fascinating insights into bygone days.

“Shadow on the Mountains” is a short film showing life in the hills in 1931 which is free to watch on BFI Player.  It has no audio or soundtrack, and this together with the jerky haste of early films gives a real sense of atmosphere.  Much of the film is shot on steep hillsides typical of the sudden transition from valley floor to high upland plateau.  Men incongruously dressed in Sunday best, complete with ties and hats, head out to gather their sheep.  They ride stocky little hill ponies and are accompanied by a motley collection of working dogs.  Shots of abandoned mine workings are a reminder that other ways of life have come and gone in these areas.

Later footage captures the more rolling and fertile lower lands near the coast and the crops grown these.  This gives a link to a section showing experiments with grass and clover underway in the greenhouses of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, which had been opened in 1919 (see more here).  We see scientists with a surprisingly simple set-up doing pioneering work a world away from the high tech systems of today.  Back up the hill a caterpillar tractor and plough working at an alarming  angle and speed prepares ground for reseeding with these new, improved grasses and clovers, leading to concluding shots of an apparently contented ewe chewing her cud with her lamb by her side.

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To watch, follow the link here

What is striking is how similar much of the landscape is to what you’d see today.  This is a time well before support subsidies and headage payments, yet we see vast tracts of the same floristically challenged grasslands that are now considered synonymous with over grazing.  No trees, no heather.  It’s just one area,  but it’s a reminder that it’s often worth questioning just how good the ‘good old days’ really were.

 

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From lab antics to the great outdoors!

By Hannah Vallin

It was back in May I decided to have a slight change in my working lifestyle.  Swapping lab coats and pipettes for waterproofs, wellies, and field work equipment.  Not that I wanted to escape the laboratory in anyway but I was intrigued by the great outdoors. What was going on in the uplands that is known as Pwllpeiran? Well since starting a lot has happened and it has been a fun, busy, few months. From harvesting the daffodil plots, hosting the Pwllpeiran open day, getting involved at the Royal Welsh, to accruing our own flock of ewes and lambs.

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In particular, the task of getting 100 ewes and some 140 odd lambs up to the hills of Pwllpeiran from Gogerddan some 17 miles away involving myself, our trusted Gareth and his dog on a quad. We are now into our fourth month of farming sheep on the windy and occasionally sunny hills of Pwllpeiran.

So you are probably wondering why we decided to get some sheep? Well alongside our Yellow Gold daffodil project, yes you should know all about that having read our previous blog posts 😉 It was decided to incorporate daffodil production into grazed pastures on animal performance and the stock carrying capacity of the land.

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So summer began and so did the routine sheep checks. There was a lot of running around at the beginning, mainly by me attempting to get a flock of sheep into particular plot. However, the sheep always had a different idea of where they wanted to be. Finally, when you think all the ewes and lambs are matched correctly and happily in their field plots, think again. Who knew sheep were experts at playing the Houdini act.

Over the weeks I would like to say they have got used to the routine of herding them up for regular weighing and health checks.  I have become gradually more efficient in my sheep handling techniques after almost being knocked out on occasions with jumping lambs. Overall the sheep have settled in nicely and are now used to us walking through the fields carrying out our sward measurements and environmental surveys.

But alas the unexpected always happens when farming sheep on a hillside. It’s now approaching the back end of summer and the original lambs are ready for weaning, they are all healthy and of a decent size growing fast. It is now time for them to explore past the demo plots into the main hills away from mum.  This was a task in its self to separate them all! Then the unexpected part….When checking on a plot of spare ewes supposedly barren needless to say I noticed a small white thing hiding in the tall grass. Approaching further, worried to what I was going to find, up pop two tiny ears and a dozed look on what was a recently new born lamb. To our surprise there were two new lambs, somewhat later than the usual lambing season but extremely cute. Pleased to say they are doing very well enjoying life in the hills, and it’s always nice to watch them bounding around. You never know they may become permanent residents born and bred at Pwllpeiran.

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Probably the most interesting task of all was retrieving all the lambs down from the hills to the holding systems at the research centre, in order to separate the ewe lambs from the tups. Now this was an experience!! Instead of the easy method often using a trailer we decided to do it the old fashioned way, and walk them down the main road.  All you need is someone with the experience (not myself) but Gareth with his sheep dog. Keeping in mind these lambs have never set foot on concrete and most defiantly never been walked down a road. Needless to say I was a tad apprehensive as to what was about to happen.  As I stood on the main road to stop any cars from passing, I suddenly saw 140 odd lambs running towards me down the track. What do I do!?!  Somehow I stayed calm and acted like I knew what I was doing. It worked! All the lambs were following one another heading in the right direction. I think in this case it was the dog that did all the hard work.  It was certainly a great sight to see. One could say it’s just how we do sheep farming in the Welsh hills.

There is a lot more to write about, other adventures, interesting animals caught on our camera traps, exciting future plans, and newcomers to join. But I won’t give it all away, lets save that for another blog 😉

But……You can check out our latest mini movie on Pwllpeiran ponderings.  Enjoy!

Brignant – A modern classic

Brignant

View across the Brignant long-term plots

By Mariecia Fraser

Amongst the many excellent experimental resources at Pwllpeiran are a set of long-term plots known as the Brignant plots.  They were created in 1994 as part of a MAFF-funded collaboration between the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and ADAS, to test the effectiveness of different extensification managements in achieving reversion of improved permanent pasture to semi-natural vegetation.  The plots were established on typical upland improved permanent pasture that had been ploughed and reseeded in the 1970s, and which had received regular inputs of fertiliser and lime.  Project results indicated promising prospects for restoring species-rich grassland communities through natural species colonisation. They also indicated that different extensive managements could vary the rate and direction of successional changes.  Funding for the original project work ceased in 2006.

Vintage carWhen talking about what happened next, a colleague, Dr Gareth Griffiths, uses a fantastic analogy which compares experimental plots to cars.  When they are new and shiny they attract lots of attention, but as time moves on they can start to look a bit dated as trends change.  At this point there is a high risk of them being scrapped in favour of something newer.  However, if they survive and are looked after they eventually start to gain value again due to their rarity and longevity.  At this point the label switches to ‘vintage’.  Thankfully, despite funding for the plots ending in 2006, the ADAS staff at Pwllpeiran kept the plots going on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ basis until they left; with treatments imposed but no data collected.  Gareth Griffiths and others took over the cause until the lease of Pwllpeiran to IBERS was settled.  Today the age and the extent of the treatments effects at the site make Brignant a unique experimental resource.  It is one of only a handful of long-term ecological experiments in the UK, and the only one based on upland improved pasture.  Grassland science owes a great deal to the staff that kept the resource going through ten turbulent years when its future was constantly under threat.

To give a bit of detail on the set-up, the plots are arranged in a randomized block design with three blocks and a total of seven grassland management regimes imposed on individual plots. The treatments are: sheep grazing, hay cut only, and hay cut with aftermath grazing; each with and without the addition of lime.  Plots are 0.15 ha (grazed) or 0.08 ha (hay cut only) in size. Control plots continuing the previous site management (i.e. limed, fertilised and continually grazed by sheep) are also included within each block.

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Layout of the Brignant long-term plots

Although over two decades old, the plots are highly relevant to today’s knowledge and evidence gaps. A third of the upland grassland in the UK is categorised as improved permanent pasture, and for the majority of farms within less favoured areas the extent and condition of these swards determines the overall level of productivity possible.  However, the policy framework for permanent grasslands is currently undergoing major change due to BREXIT/CAP reform plus reinterpretation of their role in terms of environmental regulations.  These changes can curtail the management options available to farmers, and there is much debate amongst policymakers and the industry as to the wider implications of the new rules.  New project work is quantifying for the first time the impact of the alternative management treatments on a broad suite of provisioning, regulating and supporting ecosystem services, and explore related above and below ground processes.  Collectively the results will be used to deliver a comprehensive comparative assessment of productive performance and public goods delivery from permanent pastures under alternative management regimes.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the Park Grass experiment at Rothamsted Research, despite its future being highly uncertain at times.  Justifiably, this and similar very long-term trials at Rothamsted are referred to as the Classical Experiments, and their contribution to science celebrated.  Brignant is one of only a handful of UK sites that can aspire to be a Modern Classic.