By Debbie James

Geraint Rowlands has learned from experience that it can sometimes be easier to manage people than cattle.

The River Mawddach, which acts as a natural boundary to his farm near Dolgellau, is an attraction for the visitors who holiday at his family’s on-farm caravan and camping site but also a tempting escape route for cattle.

“We used to buy cattle in as stores for finishing but, because we couldn’t fence the river, they kept crossing it,’’ recalls Geraint, who farms with his father, Peter, at Vanner, a 400-acre sheep farm at Llanelltyd near Dolgellau.

“We were always getting phone calls to tell us that the cattle were out so we gave up in the end.’’

A flock of 400 breeding ewes now graze the land and the caravan and camping site takes up a lot of his time.

Geraint, who is married to Delyth and has a daughter, Mari, is the fifth generation of his family to farm at Vanner. His great-great-grandparents moved there from Trawsfynydd in 1905 and established the caravan site in the 1930s.

His grandparents later expanded the site to five acres in the 1930s and it is now licenced for 58 static caravans, 30 tourers and has a small camping field, providing important income for the business.

The farm has a rich history. An order of Cistercian monks established an Abbey there in 1198 and farmed the land. Its remains are a stone’s throw from the farmhouse, itself a Grade II* listed building.

The Rowlands family own the Abbey, a Grade I listed scheduled ancient monument, but it is managed by Cadw.

Vanner extends to 400 acres, with half the land owned by the family and the remainder rented from the Nannau Estate.

The family ran it as a dairy farm until 1992 but now concentrate on producing lamb from a flock of Tregaron-type Welsh mountain ewes.

The flock, which has been bred to be low maintenance, lambs outside between mid-March and mid-April. “

We need a flock that is not too labour intensive because lambing coincides with when we open the caravan site for the season,’’ Geraint explains.

The ewes are crossed with a Texel and last year a Charmoise ram was used for the first time.

This was used for tupping the smaller ewes in a bid to add more shape to their lambs.

“We are trying to get a bit more weight at killing out,’’ says Geraint. “The Charmoise tup has produced small but solid lambs, they are heavier than they look.’’

Lambs are sold as stores at Dolgellau market, with everything sold by the end of October.

The live auction system is one which works well for Geraint.

“They are big-framed lambs, they draw attention in the market and we get good prices for them.’’

At its highest point, Vanner Farm rises to 1000 feet but this mountain land is sparsely grazed.

The farm’s stocking density is not high because during periods of high rainfall the river floods 150 acres which means grazing the sheep on a smaller area of land. And there is a lot of rain.

“The area is very wet,’’ Geraint admits.

But it was water which initially attracted visitors to his holiday site. Up until the 1980s visitors came to fish in the river, which is owned by the Prince Albert Angling Association, but angler numbers have now diminished.

“We are told there is not enough fish in the river, people who come here to fish now fish in the lakes,’’ says Geraint.

The area has instead benefited from interest in cycling and walking; the caravan site’s close proximity to a popular mountain biking centre is an advantage.

The site is so popular that Geraint holds a waiting list of people who want a pitch there. Some of the families have been associated with the site for three generations, paying an annual rent for a static pitch which they can use from Easter to the end of October.

In the winter the touring caravans must be moved off the site because there is no permission for storing them on the farm. “We have storage in place on several farms,’’ Geraint explains.

An unexpected hurdle he has come up against in recent years is the increasing size of caravans. The site’s infrastructure, such as water supply and electricity hook-ups, was designed for 10ft wide caravans but most caravans are now 12ft wide.

“It is getting more or less impossible to get a 10ft wide caravan so at some point we are going to have to alter the infrastructure,’’ says Geraint.

Another change has been demand for a power supply from campers, he adds. “We have installed electric hook-ups in the camping field because the campers all have phones and tablets these days and want a facility to charge them.’’

The farm has its own spring water to supply the site and the two holiday cottages which form part of the diversification enterprise.

Although the majority of the family’s income comes from the holiday diversification Geraint considers himself a farmer first and foremost.

“The majority of my time is taken up by the farm but the majority of our income comes from the caravan site, it doesn’t make sense!’’