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Joint FUW study suggests dramatic loss of agriculture and land use changes over past two centuries

A ground-breaking study comparing Welsh land use in the 1840s with current practices suggests dramatic falls in agricultural and particularly arable land use, even in Wales’ most mountainous regions.

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The work suggests drastic falls in the areas used for arable production, particularly in mountainous parishes since the 1840s, and a significant increase in farm woodland in lowland and upland regions during the same period

A ground-breaking study comparing Welsh land use in the 1840s with current practices suggests dramatic falls in agricultural and particularly arable land use, even in Wales’ most mountainous regions.

“A summary of preliminary comparisons between Welsh land use in the 1840s and 2015 in Wales’ non-LFA, DA and SDA areas” summarises initial findings from a study co-funded by the Farmers’ Union of Wales.

The study compares agricultural land use in six Welsh parishes, as recorded in tithe records in the 1840s and digitised through the Heritage Lottery funded Cynefin project, with equivalent anonymised data recorded in the 2015 Integrated Administration Control System (IACS) – records which must be updated annually by farmers under Common Agricultural Policy rules.

Cynefin Project Manager Einion Gruffudd said: “There are striking similarities between the data recorded in tithe records some 175 years ago and the data recorded annually by farmers on the IACS system. Both are linked to detailed maps and include field numbers, field areas and land uses as well as other comparable data.

“The tithe maps and records are being transcribed and digitised by an army of more than 900 volunteers through the cynefin.wales website, meaning comparisons with data extracted from the modern IACS database can be made at the click of a button.”

The initial comparisons have been made between areas recorded as arable; meadow and pasture; and woodland in six parishes distributed throughout Wales – a total area of 34 square miles (88km2); two parishes in each of Wales’ non-Less Favoured Area (non-LFA); Disadvantaged Area (DA) and Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA).

The comparison suggests a fall in the proportion of land given over to those three main land uses of 20%, from 74% in the 1840s, to 59% in 2015, with the fall greatest in the SDA areas considered – down from 65% to 42%. The fall is lowest in the DA areas considered – down from 82% in the 1840s to 76% in 2015.

Particularly pronounced reductions are seen in the areas devoted to arable production since the 1840s in all land categories; an overall reduction of 85% for all areas (from 2561ha in the 1840s to 385ha in 2015), and a reduction of 80% (from 573ha to 114ha), 82% (from 1427ha to 261ha) and 98% (from 561ha to 9ha) for non-LFA, DA and SDA areas respectively.

The total area of farm woodland for all land categories was found to have increased significantly by 56% (from 264ha in the 1840s to 415ha in 2015), comprising an increase of 76% (from 77ha to 136ha), 0% (115ha – no change) and 123% (from 71ha to 159ha) for non-LFA, DA and SDA areas respectively.

FUW head of policy Nick Fenwick, co-author of the report, said: “These are preliminary findings relating to just six parishes, and there is a great deal more to do in terms of deciphering and analysing the data.

“However, the results appear to confirm known patterns in terms of changes in land use within different areas, and suggest that the scale of those changes are drastic, particularly in terms of the reduction in cultivation.”

He said careful account should be taken of such results by those considering and advocating changes in land use, particularly for environmental purposes.

“While these comparisons span a period of around 175 years, many of the most significant changes, such as the abandonment of arable production and the creation of vast forestry plantations, occurred over the last century, and particularly after the Second World War.

“In our experience, many of the restrictions placed on farmers for environmental reasons have been introduced with little or no reference to historical land use, while some seem to be based upon inaccurate preconceptions about farming rather than evidence.

“In many cases restrictions are based upon highly inaccurate habitat maps which bear little relation to reality, and nobody has bothered to ask the families who have been farming the land for centuries about how their farming practices and grazing patterns may have changed.”

Mr Fenwick said that while environmental management had brought major benefits in some areas, restrictions in others, particularly in terms of the removal of grazing livestock, have caused huge damage.

“The information digitised through the Cynefin project is invaluable in terms of establishing a baseline for measuring at a large scale how the environment and land use have changed over the years.

“It will also help provide a clearer picture as to whether it is really appropriate and in fact potentially damaging to the environment to penalise people for ploughing fields that their forefathers were ploughing routinely and growing crops on from the 1840s well into the 1950s,” he added.

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