By Debbie James

Geraint Watkins’ farm in the Brecknockshire countryside is an exemplar for what a love of nature, combined with the best possible use of agri-environment scheme support, can deliver for wildlife, the environment and soils.

The river valley landscape that stretches out across 300-acre Llwyngychwydd in Llanwrtyd Wells has been farmed by Geraint’s family for three generations and is rich in habitats with an exceptional wealth of biodiversity.

A case in point is a goshawk raising two chicks this summer in a nest built within 80 yards of the farmhouse by a red kite.

The family’s approach to farming is in part a result of its accessibility, or rather its inaccessibility.

“We can’t go all out for production because we have a narrow lane access that restricts what we can do,’’ explains Geraint, NFU Cymru’s county chairman for Brecon and Radnor.

Over the years, a succession of farm consultants have advised ambitious plans for doubling stock numbers but that would require inputs to be delivered to the farm in lorries that would be unable to negotiate the lane.

But, accessibility issues aside, the family has a desire to work with nature rather than against it, to increase biodiversity at the same time as producing environmentally friendly food.

Llwyngychwydd and its 300 acres together with another 120 acres rented on neighbouring farms supports 400 South Wales mountain and Aberfield ewes and a small herd of Dexter and belted Galloway cows.

The flock lambs outside from April 1 with the lambs sold at Hereford Mart in March of the following year.

As a high-altitude farm, Llwyngychwydd doesn’t grow grass early therefore lambs don’t gain sufficient growth from pasture to be sold fat in the same year in which they are born.

They are instead finished off grass on tack land in Ledbury.

“Whatever happens in the world I know that the grass will grow in Ledbury, the grain and straw price will go up and down but the grass will still grow in Ledbury,’’ laughs Geraint.

Running the flock outdoors is good for sheep health. “We don’t have to dose or treat for footrot often, it is a sustainable way to produce lamb,’’ says Geraint.

He is refining the flock to need less attention, by breeding a sheep that looks after itself.

“I think one of the things that puts the next generation off from farming sheep is the amount of work they see being done to keep a flock but we can improve that by breeding sheep that don’t need to be regularly brought into the yard and turned over.’’

The cattle enterprise is a joint venture with one of his landlords who wanted to own cattle but didn’t want to be a registered keeper. Geraint is responsible for the day to day management and the men share the progeny.

The income, Geraint admits, is “negligible’’ but the cattle are improving soils by adding organic matter. “We need to use tractors as little as possible so we are getting cows to do the job of adding fertility for us.’’

The soil is seeing the benefit – it was compacted in places but a greater population of earthworms is loosening up the soil.

Environmental schemes have been a feature of the farm’s business model for 25 years when Geraint’s father first joined a scheme. “I remember when the ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) officer would come to the farm and they would spend days looking at the different grass species in hay meadows,’’ Geraint recalls.

The farm has 17th century stone field enclosures and there is evidence that no hedges have ever been removed.

As Wales moves towards a new approach to supporting agriculture with government money, the proposed approach of payments according to outcomes is a fair one Geraint reckons.

“There can’t be a one-size-fits-all scheme, it doesn’t work as we have seen with Glastir,’’ he says.

“Setting dates for when things need to be done gives people so much anxiety, if you don’t join a scheme you are not going to make a mistake so we shouldn’t penalise people who do join and are doing their best.’’

But he also thinks farmers have a responsibility to the taxpayer. “We can’t expect the taxpayer to give us money and to not do anything in return.’’