Planning The Future of an Iconic Welsh Hill Farm

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

I have the rare privilege of writing the conservation land management plan for an iconic Welsh hill farm, here’s my introduction….

Dyffryn Mymbyr is arguably the most famous farm in Wales, possibly in the whole of the UK. It was made famous by the international bestselling memoir of Thomas Firbank, who bought the farm and the flock of Welsh Mountain sheep as a very young man in 1931 and ran the farm, latterly with his new wife Esmé, until he went to fight in the Second World War in 1940. During the war years Firbank and Esmé divorced and he never returned to the farm, leaving it to her to run which she did, often under great hardship, until her death in 1999 at the age of 89.

Photo: Ylofla
Photo: Ylofla

In the intervening years Esmé Kirby (as she became known following her marriage to Peter Kirby whom she met at the Sandhurst Military Training Camp (now the Plas Y Brenin National Mountain Centre) at Capel Curig) became a tireless campaigner for environmental issues and founded the Snowdonia National Park Society in 1967 with Dyffryn as its headquarters, and the Esmé Kirby Snowdonia Trust Fund in 1990. Esmé fought countless campaigns against developments which she felt threatened to undermine or destroy the natural beauty, character and heritage of her beloved Snowdonia. Whilst these campaigns sometimes upset and disturbed some people, her integrity and passion always ensured her the utmost respect from everyone who came to know her.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Firbank’s book “I Bought a Mountain”, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and still in print, is widely regarded as one of the best accounts in literature about a working Welsh hill sheep farm. It beautifully describes the knowledge and skills accrued by generations of hill sheep farmers over centuries, bringing them to life through the characters of the numerous shepherds and neighbouring farmers who all helped each other with the continually daunting, but obviously fulfilling, task of rearing sheep in such an inhospitable and challenging landscape.

Sadly all of those people are gone now. The old farmhouse at Dyffryn is 500 years old, and the farmer who built it then was probably shepherding sheep in the Glyders much as Thomas, Esmé and all of the others did. As Esmé wrote in a Snowdonia Society Annual Report in 1975, “those who ‘own’ the land are only life tenants. They cannot take it with them, they must leave the land behind. We must think of these places as great treasures of incalculable value, to be lovingly cherished and respected and handed on unspoilt to the next generation”.

Thomas and Esmé left us, through their written words, a humbling insight into a wild and passionate life and culture shaped by the rocks, the wind and the rain of an iconic Welsh landscape known to millions of people around the world. For Thomas and Esmé, Dyffryn was typical of many mountain farms. Remote and rugged, their home was a solid stone house perched above the Dyffryn Mymbyr valley. The entrance to the valley is guarded by two lakes. The southern wall of the valley is the long hump of Moel Siabod, and the northern wall, higher and rougher, is the Glyders, Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr, both over 3000 feet high. Across the western head of the valley stands Snowdon and the mountains of the “Snowdon Horseshoe”, Y Lliwedd, Snowdon, Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch.

Photo: Mike Alexander
Photo: Mike Alexander

Above the wall the open mountain had for centuries carried a permanent flock of sheep which knew the boundaries (the boundary of Dyffryn is the ridge culminating at Glyder Fach at over 3000 feet). Each year the ewe lambs were kept to enter the flock, and the four-year-old ewes were sold off to make room for them. Thus there were always 4 generations of sheep on the mountain. The permanent flock stayed at home by a mass heredity, each ewe having her own beat and always being found near the same grassy hollow or sheltered gully. She brings up her lamb on her little range and when in time she is sold the lamb carries on the tradition and eventually bequeaths the domain to her own offspring. This legacy, multiplied by a thousand individuals, tied the flock to its home.

In her book “Esmé, the guardian of Snowdonia”, Teleri Bevan writes that “Esmé had long admired the work of the National Trust, in particular their respect for the Snowdonia landscape and the ancient farming practices of the mountain terrain. She had a warm friendship with Fiona Reynolds (former Director of the National Trust)…who visited Dyffryn many times, and in 2005 after the death of Peter Kirby, Dyffryn was bequeathed to the National Trust for safe keeping.  And so a new chapter for this sometimes cruel but always beautiful land begins.

33 thoughts on “Planning The Future of an Iconic Welsh Hill Farm”

  1. More beautiful photos – especially Llynnau Mymbyr.

    I fully agree with her comment:
    ““those who ‘own’ the land are only life tenants” – I own 6 acres and only consider that an agreement between people and won’t have my wildlife killed on my land as so many landowners do – I consider it their land, not mine.

    1. Thank you Jan, yes it is a magical place and I cant wait to get back there and start work in earnest. Once I ve done this farm I ve got the rest of themountains to do, so plenty to do! Thanks so much for your comment 😃

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Mike – what a great and inspiring project!!
    In Austria, moving to a rural area ‘to grow sheep’ had once become a stereotype for dropping out of the rat race, living down-to-earth, and fulfulling your dreams. But as far as I know it is very hard to live off your land and livestock with a small farm today. Many farmers have another day job or started bed&breakfasts (called ‘vacation on a farm’ here – quite popular and done really professionally).

    1. Thanks Elke, yes it’s the same here these days, nobody makes money from hill sheep farming, so they do other things. But this gives us opportunities to “grow” other things, like ecologically rich habitats, as well as conserving better all the stored carbon in the deep peat. The land and economics are always changing, that’s what makes it interesting

  3. Mike, this is one of the most fascinating historical posts I have read in my 4 years of blogging. Congratulations on being selected for this task. I plan to read Firbank’s book and I hope you post more about your experiences throughout the project.

  4. Thanks for that great story, Mike. I can’t imagine what it must have been like running a sheep farm in such rugged wilderness. And congratulations on being given this honor. It’s nice to hear something about your “real” job. 🙂 You should do this more often.

    1. Thanks Pat, yes I’m so excited about this job I had to share it. There is something very powerful when reading about the entire lives of people only to find yourself on the same remote hillside as night falls, staring at all the land they spent so long working. Humbling

  5. Mike this is a wonderful story. Is there now another young woman looking after the sheep on those hills? I think I read something about her last year!?!

Comments very welcome

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