“We all have a part to play in looking after our environment and slowing down climate change,” says Welsh farmer Llyr Jones. “It can’t just be farmers; everyone has to look at how they can make small changes to their everyday lives.”
The farmer and father of three has had his eye on creating a greener future since taking on the farm at Derwydd, near Corwen in Denbighshire, at the tender age of 19.
“I took over because my dad had cancer, so from the age of 19 to 23 I was running it on my own, but my father was there. He passed away when I was 23, but having those four years with him really helped me.
“When we started, we were just a sheep farm and I’ve added greatly to that.”
Llyr is referring to the fact that the 1,600-acre farm now has 1,100 sheep, 250 heifers, and 33,000 free range hens for egg production. The farm also sells rapeseed oil, has a self-catering cottage and has invested heavily in green energy.
The whole site is powered through renewable energy, largely thanks to the 30KW hydro-electric system he had installed in 2012 on a stream on the farm, with 24KW photovoltaic panels providing a back-up source of renewable energy when warm weather reduces the flow of water to the hydro system.
“From the start, I was looking to be green,” says Llyr. “I was lucky because my father had already put in the hydro system for the farm, which was just for the house, so my first big project was to put in a bigger one that was computerised. We were exporting electricity into the grid, but I realised we weren’t getting paid a lot of money for it. We got money from the feed-in tariff, but not for the export, so I thought, how can I utilise this energy?”
He looked at the possibility of opening a caravan park on his land, but it would be at its busiest at the wrong time of year for the hydro system to work effectively. “Caravans are more summer, and the hydro doesn’t run that much in summer,” he explains. “Then I came across a free range egg farm and, three years later, I put up our first chicken shed. The electricity that’s needed for this is constant. It does peak a little in the summer when we need ventilation to keep them cool.
“Here in Wales, we are so lucky with our environment. We have a huge amount of rainfall and big hills, which are the perfect ingredients for producing hydro-electricity. It’s great that we can harness this green energy to produce more food while limiting our impact on the environment.”
Meanwhile, an 80KW ground and air source heat pump pushes warm air into the poultry units – a benefit for bird welfare and productivity as the hens use less energy keeping warm. It means that the hens eat less food every day, resulting in reduced lorry visits to the site – Llyr estimates that this has saved around three lorry loads of feed per year.
“Also, technology has moved on hugely, so when the hydro is producing electricity, the ground source knows that it’s on, so will only take what it needs. I don’t need to buy in electricity.
“The house and the holiday cottage are air source heated and we have an electric car and an electric ATV, which only take what they need when they are charging. The farmhouse needs a new roof, so, instead of slate, we are having it roofed with 7KW solar panels, which only costs a little bit more and will give us electricity.
“It all helps us to be as carbon neutral as possible. So, by being green it helps the environment and it helps me and the farm and the family. It really is win-win! I also find that being tight helps with being green,” he laughs. “I don’t mind spending money if I know I will get a return on it. With the price of energy going the way it is, now I am glad I did – plus there were government incentives helping to make the decision far easier, so I capitalised on it.”
Alongside his work on green energy, Llyr has also invested a great deal of time in caring for and enhancing the natural environment that surrounds the farm. He participates in the Welsh Government Glastir agri-environment scheme and, as part of his work in this scheme, he manages 1,000 acres of heather moorland, which is one of the best lekking areas in Wales for the rare black grouse. There is also 30 acres of peatland, which needs to be kept moist and tree-free.
Llyr explains: “Black grouse are quite rare in Wales and we have one of the best areas for them to breed. We regularly cut the heather to keep it lighter in strips to help the grouse to express themselves, then because there is also taller heather, they have places to hide from predators. We also keep the bracken down because it can overwhelm the heather. I’ve seen figures that show that 80% of all heather in Europe is in the UK, so it’s a rare thing for Europe that needs protecting and it’s nice to be a part of something bigger, environmentally.
“We also have 30 acres of peatland, so we make sure it’s kept moist by blocking any drains to stop the water seeping away. We also make sure there are no trees growing on it, as the trees will suck the moisture out of the ground. They are only little whips, but we take them out by hand, which is physically hard work.
“In Wales we’re in a very wet environment and we have a large amount of peatland that we graze our sheep on. It’s important that we look after these peatlands because they store thousands of tonnes of carbon per hectare – they’re great carbon sinks.”
Trees and wildlife motorways
Llyr might not want trees on the peatland, but on the rest of the farm, tree planting is increasingly important, not just for the wildlife, but also for his hens.
“We are planting trees on the uplands farm where we live and are also planting trees for the hens in the 40 acres of land they free range on. At 9am each day, the doors are open to the hen house and they go out and feel comfortable in the woods, so we have been planting a few thousand trees for them on the range.”
In the past three years, Llyr has planted more than 4,500 trees to increase carbon sequestration.
“We have also created a two-mile stream-side corridor, like a motorway through the middle of the farm for the wildlife, and it goes from the bottom of the farm up to 16,000 acres of neighbouring forestry land. Wildlife can follow the corridor up to the forest along the small river without meeting cattle and sheep. I have seen deer there and there’s evidence otters have used it, too.”
He also manages seven acres of ancient woodland and is responsible for maintaining four miles of hedgerow. He adds that they grow corn, then leave the field fallow over winter. Nothing is ploughed, weeds grow, and this helps prevent soil erosion and also provides the birds with feed over the winter.
All aspects of the farm have been put under the ‘green’ microscope, including the livestock. Llyr introduced rotational grazing for his cattle (see below) and this is seeing very positive results.
“We put them into small, half an acre sections and move them every day,” he says. “The grass gets a rest for up to 35 days before the cows come back. It’s quite competitive for the cows for the first couple of hours because they are trying to eat just the nice grass, but then they end up finishing all of it, so it’s like a lawn when they move off. This is great for the grass as it promotes growth.
“So, our grass growth is phenomenal and we can keep more cattle on less ground. It also means any of our unfavourable land previously used for grazing is now being planted with trees. The farm is producing more protein on less land and the land we are leaving is going towards environmental schemes.
“Because the grass is growing so well, the carbon in the soil is far higher than if it was a grazed normally and it’s better for the cows, too, because they are moving onto fresh pasture every day. We also don’t buy concentrate for them as they are all grass-fed and that saves money. It's good for the cows, good for us and good for the environment.”
The sheep have a role to play, too. “We have Welsh mule ewes and Bluefaced Leicester rams. We farm them to match the natural rhythms of the environment now. We used to lamb in January, but we can grow good quality grass, and would rather work with nature and cut our feed costs, so we lamb in April outside and they go to abattoirs or markets usually at the end of June, through July and August.”
Steering towards net zero
Llyr is working hard to steer his farm towards net zero and is calling for everyone to play their part. As a livestock farmer, he particularly wants to challenge the notion that giving up meat is a good way forward.
“Plant-based is not necessarily the answer as some of these products can have a higher footprint than locally-produced meat. What people need to do is to start eating seasonal and local, and look at grass-fed livestock too.
“It gives me great pride that we produce green energy here at Derwydd. We try to do lots of little things that we hope will help the bigger picture. “The other thing I have noticed is that by being environmentally-friendly, it’s actually benefited the farm. By going green it makes the bank go black.” And as a father of three young children, for whom green energy will likely be the norm, he wants to ensure a future that sees farming and the environment working in harmony to produce quality food, while preserving the natural world around us.
Llyr adds: “As a farmer, I don’t want to think that I’m polluting the local environment. When I retire, I want to give this farm to my children in a far better condition than when I inherited it.”
For more stories of the work farmers are doing to hit net zero, visit: countrysideonline.co.uk/back-british-farming/back-british-farming-our-latest-activity/climate-friendly-farming