Agriculture is an integral part of the local economy and community and has helped shape the Carneddau landscape over thousands of years, to what we see today.
While the Carneddau’s geology, altitude, climate and natural processes have formed the mountains, cwms, rivers and streams, it is agriculture that has had the major influence on the mosaic of vegetation cover, the wildlife it supports and the distinct cultural heritage of the area.
Farmers and land managers are vital to ensuring that the Carneddau’s special and varied landscape is maintained and enhanced for the future.
History of agriculture
- Farming began to shape the landscape during the Neolithic period from about 6,000 years ago. Woodland and vegetation were cleared as the first farmers domesticated animals and planted crops for food.
- Temporary settlements dating from the Bronze Age some 4,500 years ago demonstrate that people were active in the area and agricultural activity probably involved summer grazing of cattle on the surrounding land.
- By the Iron Age (around 3,000 years ago), more permanent settlements are evident through communities of ’round houses’ and the development of field systems in the area. Irregular patterns of enclosures surround the houses, which were probably used for managing livestock.
- During the 13th century, many of the ffriddoedd of the Tywysogion (princes) of Gwynedd were found in the Carneddau, specifically in Abergwyngregyn.
- By Medieval times, stock and farming families moved to the uplands during summer, or Hafod, and back to sheltered grassland during winter, or Hendre. Some of these ruined Hafod buildings can still be seen on the uplands today.
- By the 18th century, most of the upland woodland had disappeared, through felling for timber and fuel and increased livestock grazing.
- Sheep numbers increased massively in the 18th and 19th century as the wool trade developed and they started to replace cattle as the dominant livestock on the Carneddau. Evidence of sheep rearing exists on the landscape through extensive drystone walls, sheepfolds and shelters for shepherds.
- Annual agricultural tasks such as sheep shearing and gathering were huge communal events with everyone pitching in and helping each other—a tradition that still exists to some extent today.
The majority of mountain land is common land, subject to “rights of common” allowing the right to graze stock. These rights are for designated commoners, usually attached to the property they occupy, often found next to a Common. Over 20 square miles of common can be found between Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy.
Evidence of past sheep rearing can be found across the land, from substantial drystone walls to shelters for shepherds. The most distinctive feature of the landscape however are the sheep folds. Scattered across the Carneddau, the folds come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of those found on the common land are large and feature different sections that would usually be accessed from a central holding pen. From here sheep gathered from the common could be separated into different flocks by farm.
Communal gatherings and management of livestock on the open mountains were an important part of mountain life. People would, and still do, set off very early in the morning towards the uplands of the Carneddau and bring the livestock down together.
In the autumn months the gathering of sheep and ponies from the uplands continues to be an impressive sight as the community works together.
Gathering and sorting flocks of sheep on open mountains can be tough work. Due to this, collaboration and coordination between many different farmers and landowners is incredibly important.
Sheep gathering takes place three times a year; early summer for shearing, late summer to separate lambs for market, and autumn to bring the stock down from the mountain. The gathering traditionally starts in the Conwy Valley commons, working its way around the Carneddau landscape, from the north east through to Dyffryn Ogwen over several days.
Fairs and markets were major events in the agricultural calendar and still remain important to the community today. Some of these fairs are still held with reminders of these past traditions also surviving.
- Conwy to this day stills holds its regular Honey Fair which dates as far back as the Medieval period.
- Carneddau ponies were once sold at the autumn fairs in Llanllechid and Menai Bridge, with an annual fun-fair in Llanllechid surviving as a reminder of this past practice.
- The annual carnival at Rowen is said to have its origins in a fair related to the droving trade.
- The long standing Dyffryn Ogwen agricultural show and the more recent Afon Ogwen river festival in Bethesda could be seen as a newer versions of traditional communal events.
The Carneddau Ponies
The uphill farmers of the Carneddau are important figures for the survival of the iconic Carneddau ponies.
There are roughly 220 ponies roaming the vast commons between Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy.
Local farmers take care of these ponies, and every year, in late Autumn, they’re gathered together and brought down the mountains to be checked over and given any care needed.
Recent DNA work has shown that the Carneddau ponies are a distinctive breed, isolated from other herds for several hundred years.
Farming has shaped the Carneddau landscape over thousands of years, contributing to the landscape we see today and will continue to see in the future. lndeed, many of the valuable habitats found in the area depend on livestock grazing.
As well as playing an important role in the area’s economy, farming continues to have a strong influence on the natural and cultural heritage of the Carneddau.
Through working with farming unions, local landowners, and land management organisations, we are co-developing ways for farming systems to protect and enhance natural assets such as carbon storage and biodiversity in the Carneddau, while maintaining and celebrating the livelihood of farmers.
Examples of ways in which we are doing this include:
Planting more low-density trees, especially along water-courses, can increase biodiversity and stabilise riverbanks while also providing shelter to livestock. Hedgerows also provide shelter during harsh winter months as well as habitats for all kinds of wildlife.