Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in June 2019


THE ESTATE FARM: As described in May 2019, the Botanic Garden covers about 568 acres, of which farmland is 316 acres including 100 acres of woodland. There are 18 pedigree Welsh Black beef cows, 9 of which have calved so far, 6 yearling steers and four 2-year olds. The 35 Balwen ewes have almost finished lambing with a few ‘tail-enders’ still to lamb. There’s 8 acres of ‘arable silage’ this year in Cae Gors that was direct drilled into this grassland field after the silage crop was taken. This means that it hasn’t had to be ploughed and harrowed before the sowing of the seed; both of which are expensive operations that Huw The FARM has managed to do without this year.

June 5 was the United Nations’ World Environment Day which did not seem to attract much media attention – having to compete with the 75th D-Day Anniversary, the Royal Visit of President Trump and the decision to defer the Newport M$ by-pass. Nevertheless, such days are sometimes a useful trigger to remind ourselves of the effects that we, both locally and globally, are inflicting upon our environment. Farming has much to applaud and to condemn in its roles throughout the generations in shaping Britain’s countryside. Indeed, there are at least five key areas where farms have, can and still do, play a key and perhaps main role in the environmental challenges being faced by us all: these are our landscape; biodiversity, soil, air and water. After all, these are areas that are interlinked and form the basis of our food production systems – together of course with the skill, patience and work ethic of the farmers that manage the farms with the livestock that may go with them.

What does he mean when he says that these are interlinked?” asks The Reader in a fit of exasperation. In reply; one can only say that farmers as food producers live and work in the farmland environment that covers over 80 per cent of Wales – they see and manage the whole picture and deliver both positive – and sometimes negative – change in each of these five key areas.

ALL BUSINESS PEOPLE are always considering ‘those things’ that they need to enable them to keep their business as profitable as possible – often it’s money to invest in more efficient machinery to manufacture their produce, or perhaps to buy replacement delivery vans so they can deliver ‘next day’ rather than in 2-weeks time. Farmers tend to think in terms of the ‘Scarce Resources’ of Land, Labour and Capital; the shortage of any of which can restrict a farm’s financial performance.

But in this era of climate change and the almost certain increase of ‘extreme weather events’, there are so many things that we have taken for granted – like the variation of weather conditions from season to season – that will have intensified. Certainly, we have not talked before about the commodity without which we would all have difficulty in living – WATER. Ok, so we talked about Summer 1976 and its comparison with Summer 2018, but not really about WATER and its availability and just as serious – its unavailability to us.

And water is a global issue, but we don’t really think about it too much do we – unless of course the Welsh Water [Dwr Cymru] have inconveniently put ‘a hosepipe ban’ in place; just when our Runner Beans and Tomatoes as well as Madam’s Dahlias and Pansies are looking a bit on the wilted side? Can you remember the last time we really thought a bit about ‘the global water issues’? No, it often seems that normal people – and that includes most of the non-farming population – tend to think of water – if they ever do think of it at all – as ‘that stuff’ that comes out of all those taps when you turn them on. Have you ever thought of the number of taps in your house? Probably at least 6. Water to us in UK is a standard commodity and is just there for us, for as much as we want, and whenever we want it. But it wasn’t always like that you know, even here in Carmarthen with its annual rainfall of 1,039 mm which is just over 40 inches each year. Mind you, we think that this is a lot of rain – but it is almost nothing in comparison with Brecon and Snowdonia at over 3,000 mm!

Many people seem already to have started watering their pots with flowering plants, tomatoes and even their lawns. Just like the cheap food that we all enjoy in Wales, a ready supply of water is taken for granted by most of us. The availability of water has shaped much of our countryside and our farming in particular.

WHAT ABOUT WATER IN THE OLD DAYS? Well, if you look at the older Ordnance Survey Maps of the late 1800s and early 1900s, you will see – particularly near houses in the rural areas, the signs of: W [for Well], Well, Spring, and Exit as well as signs for Marsh and Wetland – these are all places where natural water has come to the surface – or near to it anyway! It makes sense really that if you are going to build a house in an area and there is no Mains Water supply – then you would surely tend to build near a natural water feature rather than have to carry water a long distance to your house, wouldn’t you? After all, many and perhaps most houses in rural areas were built by the early 1900s – which is long before most of these areas had Mains Water supplies installed. It would make even more sense for Farmhouses and Farm Buildings to have been developed near water supplies – river, stream, lake, spring, or wetland. After all, those cattle and horses do tend to drink rather a lot, don’t they?

THE ACCESSIBILITY of WATER SUPPLIES has been a ‘driving force’ behind human development since time began. Alright so if they must, human beings can live without food for 35-40 days but, without water to drink, we cannot survive much beyond 5-6 days. So humans tend to live near water and the old civilisations in the world only survived and became important civilisations because there was water there to ensure a plentiful and totally reliable source of water to drink and – just as important – for irrigation to grow the food crops. No water = no food crop or fodder = no food!

Where and who’s he talking about now – you ask? The Egyptians in the Nile Valley; the Sumerians, Arkadians, Babylonians and their successors who settled in Mesopotamia which is the land between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates in what is an area in the Middle East that is now most of Iran, Kuwait, Eastern Syria and southern Turkey was referred to as the Fertile Crescent in our Geography lessons at school; due to the tropical temperatures and readily available water supply – and the fertile silt – from these rivers, the irrigated cropping of rice and other cereals was routine, high yielding and risk-free. Under these conditions with plentiful food, populations could grow rapidly and remain in good health. And – so the archaeologists tell us – when people are not ‘chasing around’ searching for food and water, then they have time to think, plan for the future and spend spare time on developing communities and vigorous nation states.

And when you think about it, this access to water is important for all communities. That’s why so many world capitals and other cities and towns are sited on the banks and mouths of rivers: Cairo on the Nile River, London and the Thames; Cardiff and the Taff; Budapest and the Danube; France and the Seine; Carmarthen and the Towy, and the list goes on. And the urbanisation of the riverbank started perhaps when – a long time ago – some enterprising individual set up the historical equivalent of a ‘burger bar’ where travellers – either before or maybe after crossing the river – could stop for ‘a bite to eat’. This riverside ‘burger bar’ might then have developed into a ‘hostelry’ to cater for those people caught out by a rise in river levels caused by rainfall upriver and were unable to cross for some hours, and a blacksmith might set up his forge there to re-shoe horses on the road.  And as the resident population at these places grows, then the water transport could stop there, and the river had the convenient ability of being able to take ‘any old rubbish’ – including sewage and general waste – downstream and to lose it out of sight and out at sea!

BUT FOR FARMERS, WATER has always been an issue – the when, where and how much of rainfall of course, but also fresh water for drinking purposes. This was particularly true during the Winter in the ‘old days’ when cows were being fed hay which at only 15-20% water is much drier than today’s more normal Winter feed of silage at 55-60% water. So just to satisfy the needs of their bodies, cows need to drink more water when being fed on hay, than if they were being fed on silage! But in those old days before Mains Water came along – and in most rural areas this was in about early 1960s and in some more isolated and difficult to get to areas not until early 1980s, then farms had to rely on water sources from their own land. But how did they do this?

No single water system suited every farm and it was ‘horses for courses’ and – the topography, soil type and wetland, slopes and the ‘depth of the farmer’s pocket’. These usually combined to determine whether the farm would be able to supply water to every field, or in some fields only, or the farmer had to fill and take a water tanker to the fields every few days, or to dig a borehole, or just wait for the Mains Water supply to be installed! Some farms were fortunate enough to have a Spring at a high point on the farm that they could either surround with banking to form a reservoir from which water could travel by ditch to each field, or in more sophisticated systems have a pipeline and water siphoned down it to a trough or concrete cistern in the field from which cows could drink.

BUT SOME HAD TO PUMP. Other farmers of course had to use one of those wooden handled hand pumps to pump water from a low-lying spring or pool up to a tank that was high enough above the surrounding fields for it then to siphon down to the troughs, old baths, tanks or just pools in those fields. Compared with nowadays with the standard Mains Water pressure of 40–45 psi[1], this siphoned water flowing down the pipe under gravity, was usually at a very low pressure, and sometimes only just trickling into the water trough in a field only just below the level of the source of the water! And getting water to flow down a pipe in the first place – even with a reasonable drop of more than 30 feet or so – was never very easy because of the way that the pipe would ‘undulate’ as it travelled across fields and hedge banks. Air tended to fill the lengths of pipe that ‘undulated upwards’ and after a while silt from the water source at the top could fill the lengths of pipe that ‘undulated downwards’.

There are stories – perhaps apocryphal – of farmers who, when having difficulty with getting water to flow by gravity down their pipelines because of air or silt blockages, would connect the water pipe to the ‘vacuum line’ of the milk pump in the dairy, and to suck water from the source above through the pipe and to clear the blockage so that the water would siphon down naturally! That must surely be an apocryphal story, mustn’t it?

When consulted around his kitchen table recently, a very experienced builder and plumber friend remembered these different ways that water was moved around the countryside before Mains Water was installed or boreholes with automatic pumps were dug on each farm:

“Many of these farm pipelines were installed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, usually at least 18 inches underground and almost always in trenches dug by hand – after all, there weren’t many of those big yellow diggers around then, were there! And it was very often labourers from Ireland who did the digging, laid the pipe down and filled in the trench with soil afterwards. They were almost always ‘paid by the length’ or an agreed amount for every chain of trench dug – that’s 22 yards or 20 metres, isn’t it?”

These pipes were originally more likely to be copper or galvanised iron than salt-glazed ceramic pipes or lead, at least until late 1950s/early 1960s when the black and flexible alkathene[2] piping became available. After all, some of these pipes would have been – and many still are – ½ mile or more in length , and lead was then and is still expensive. Did you know that the reason that a worker dealing with water, taps and tanks is called a plumber is because plumbers always used to work only with lead piping, and that the Latin for Lead is Plumbum from which the chemical and atomic symbol of Pb is derived. Now that’s useful information for you, isn’t it!

Anyway, Huw says that the water supply on The Farm has undergone changes too. When the County Council took over the Estate in the mid-1950s, they broke it up into seven ‘Starter Farms’[3]. Six of these were mainly dairy farms with a few sheep and maybe some beef. Dairy farming was popular on these Starter Farms in most areas of UK – largely because the daily collections by the buyer followed by the monthly payments for that milk collected, helps the cashflow of the developing farm rather better than a sale of lambs once or twice a year!

It seems that all seven of these Starter Farms were dairy units initially, although Pantwgan [in the North-East of the Reserve] changed to keeping Red Deer and was still a deer farm into the 1980s. Alt Goch [on the East boundary] had water piped about 400 metres to it from Paxton’s Well although Waun Las in the centre of the estate had Mains Water as did Bryncrys on the South- East boundary. Gorswen [on South-West boundary] used a well or a spring or maybe both, but it’s not about the water sources for Trawscoed [between Science Block and Theatr Botanica] or Y Graig. Perhaps we’ll find out before writing a future Newsletter with Peter Lee-Thomson that looks at what The Farm and indeed farms in general have under the ground! Anyway, for even a group of farms covering such a small area of land, there was a wide range of water sources and this is typical for large areas of rural South Wales then – and indeed continues now, with many farms extracting water from natural resources for routine use but with Mains Water connected as a back-up in times of trouble!

PONDS AND OTHER WATER. In some areas of UK, cattle did then and perhaps still do now, drink from the field ponds that used to be in so many field corners, naturally low-lying areas and village centres. Apparently, many of the ponds in the middle of villages were constructed mainly for the washing of the heavy working horses after a day’s work – and presumably the finer horses of those ‘upper class’ people who had a carriage of their own!

Some of those ponds were natural and others dug for extraction of marl[4] or for livestock drinking places. These ponds would be ‘self-contained’ and usually not linked to any other water sources other than the stream or drain that supplied the water – and rainfall of course. Over the years, many – perhaps even most – of these small ponds have become silted up and overgrown with rushes, bushes and trees and have ceased to be used by domestic livestock – although perhaps still a refuge for reptiles and amphibians plus those gloriously attractive inhabitants of such habitats –Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Order Odonata.

By the way, the name Odonata comes from the Ancient Greek meaning ‘toothed jaw’ and both adult and the larval dragonflies – which are aquatic – are carnivorous; the larvae feeding on almost any moving creatures from water fleas and insect larvae to tadpoles and small fish! After a year underwater – or 2-3 years in the larger dragonflies – the larva emerges from the water and climbs a stem or leaf of a water plant and pupates. Those of you that have spent any time fishing on riverbanks will have seen on the reed stem by the size of your ‘keep net’ those paper-like but empty ‘shapes’ of the pupa that is left behind when the adult dragonfly emerges. The adults’ huge eyes give them 360o vision and with superb acrobatic skills they can feed on anything flying from small midges to butterflies! Catching this food is no problem either as their 3-pairs of legs are of different lengths so that the longer hind pair can reach forward to in front of the head and meet the shorter middle and front pairs to form a sort of ‘dragonfly leg-net’ to catch its prey. Each leg also has rows of sharp spines on the inner surface that enable the legs to mesh together to form a trap – rather like a ‘baseball glove’ with the mesh between fingers and thumb – and they eat whilst still flying!

GOING BACK TO COWS, it should be remembered that – even during her dry period each year when giving no milk at all – a fully-grown dairy cow, would need to drink 100 – 150 litres of water each day depending on the time of year and how hot it is. And, just like human females when suckling their babies, a cow giving milk would need to drink almost as much extra water each day as she is giving in milk – after all, the milk of a cow is about 87% water[5].   So a cow giving 40 litres of milk per day in a hot Summer, would need to drink about 150 litres just to keep her body going and then another 40 litres of water each day to make the milk that she is producing. So that’s 150 + 40 = 190 litres or 43 gallons each day.

Dairy farmers know that milk yields are closely related to water quality, availability and how much is drunk. Any shortage of water to drink will lead to reduced feed intakes, lower milk yields and a loss in body condition. So dairy farmers are always checking the water troughs in their fields to make sure that all are being filled and that a broken pipe hasn’t caused any troughs to run dry. They also check the consistency of the cow dung – not their slurry, which as you know is a mixture of both dung and urine – of their cows as well!

Why you ask? Well, any manure that is too firm and dry can be a sign that the cows’ water requirements are not being met and that they are just not drinking enough. That’s a bit like us too; as when we don’t drink enough, then our stomach contents are too dry and often we become constipated – and that’s not much fun is it!

ONE OF THE PROBLEMS WITH PROVIDING WATER FOR A HERD OF COWS is that – just like us – they are social animals and like to drink together. So when the leader of the herd – who is usually the ‘most pushy cow’, and is almost always at the front when moving from the field to the milking parlour, and is invariably known to the dairy farmer as ‘Mabel’ – decides that she has had enough of eating ‘this dry old hay’ that is all that the farmer has ‘chosen’ to offer them this morning and needs to go and find a drink to ‘wetten’ [a useful word this ‘wetten’ isn’t it] her throat – then all the others look up from their food and say:

‘ Oh yes, that’s a good idea Mabel, we’re thirsty too; so let’s all go for a drink, shall we’?

And this may be no problem at all when there are only 10 or 20 cows in the herd – all still jostling for position and trying to get their heads into that water trough situated in the gap in the hedge, so that it can be accessed by the fields on each side of the hedge.

But when the herd gets larger, what then? If the average size dairy herd in Wales is 98 cows, then there will be plenty of herds that are 150-200 cows – especially in South Wales with its better growing conditions and flatter land.

Add to this fact that a cow’s peak drinking water requirement is after each morning and evening milking and again in the late afternoon and early evening and there can be strong competition from each cow to get its head into the trough! Then the area around the water trough can become a bit like the Public Bar at the local Pub after that annual Rugby match between those two fiercely competitive local teams! Just like with cows, the demand for space at the bar can be high! Probably there’s a formula to work how much bar space is needed!   But for cows, you need enough space for at least 10% of the herd to be drinking at any one time. Depending on cow size each animal needs about 60 cm or 2 feet of space at the trough. So for a 100-cow herd to all drink at exactly the same time would need at least 60m space at the water trough. And that’s not going to happen is it!

COWS LIKE TO DRINK FAST and at least 20 litres every minute – that’s nearly 5 gallons per minute – and to put their muzzle at least 1-2 inches [2.5 – 5 cm] under water. So only 10 cows drinking at the same time can drink 200 litres in every 60 seconds!! So the size of the water trough or tank from which they drink is important as is water pressure and ‘trough fill up time’ as well. After all, if Mabel and her friends finish their own drinking and have moved away, but have left the water trough with only an inch or so in the bottom and the water pressure filling the trough is very low, then the trough would take a long time to fill up, and the other cows would have to wait – some would get fed up and walk away to graze and this might affect their milk yield. It is estimated that a 40 % reduction in the amount of fluids that a cow has can reduce her milk yield by at least 25%. And that’s why the farmer always tries his best to supply plenty of water that is accessible to all cows in the herd at all times of the day and night!

Unless the farm or smallholding has only a few cows, horses or llamas, the days are over now of those little 4 feet long galvanised water troughs in field hedges or old enamel baths and even the 1950s built water troughs of red brick or concrete ‘breeze blocks’ are probably relics left in hedges. Now there are more likely to be these huge concrete or black round plastic troughs capable of holding 500 gallons or 2,250 litre and often in the middle of the field; so that cows can access the water from all sides of the tank at the same time.

AND HOW MANY TIMES DO COWS TEND TO DRINK EACH DAY? How many times do we drink? Probably varies between individual people – and the weather of course! We humans probably have tea/coffee first thing in the morning, another cup or two with breakfast, again for ‘elevenses’ or ‘deg te’ and a glass of water for lunch, followed by ‘afternoon tea’ and finally whatever we drink with our evening meal and before going to bed. If a ‘mug of tea or coffee’ is 200ml then we would drink and average of about 6 mugs of tea or coffee as normal or 1.2 – 1.5 litre or about 2 -3 pints per day.

And what about cows? Probably 4-5 times of drinking each day and more if milking heavily. And cows are just as ‘fussy’ – and perhaps more so – than we are about the water quality. They have a sensitive sense of smell and will choose not to drink tainted or dirty water. Farmers are always advised to make sure that they clean out water troughs before they let the cows out in the Spring and then regularly throughout the year. High levels of bacteria, chemicals, organic matter and minerals can occur in water troughs – with various levels of ‘cow disapproval’ at what they are being offered!

MIND YOU, THE CLEANING OUT OF WATER TROUGHS is always a less than enjoyable experience because – if one doesn’t want to end up half-drowned and covered in wet leaves and other vegetable debris – a series of definite Steps must be followed:

  • Step One: that yellow, orange or red-coloured floating ball valve has to be tied up so that no more water comes into the trough – there’s no point trying to empty and clean the trough if water is still coming in at high pressure is there!
  • Step Two: use a bucket – better use a small 2 gallon one – to scoop out as much of the water in the trough as possible and throw it into the field;
  • Step Three: starts when there’s still 2-3 inches of water in the trough – which is difficult to get out with even a small bucket anyway – and the sides of the trough are still wet, use an old hand-brush to brush away the green mould and algae on the sides and bottom of the trough so that it’s clean;
  • Step Four requires skill, patience and perseverance and its performance is the reason why waterproof over-trousers are an essential item of apparel when cleaning troughs. This is because Step Four is the emptying of those 2-3 inches of the by now very dirty and scummy water left in the tank. Mind you, these dregs on the tank bottom will contain all the refuse since last time the tank was cleaned – clippings from last Autumn’s hedge trimming, twigs blown down from overhead trees in those December winds and the occasional empty – other than with trough water – soft-drink or beer can thrown away by a passer-by;
  • Years of experience – and unsuccessful trials with the use of lengths of hosepipe to siphon water out and large plastic mugs with handles – have led to the use of a plastic dustpan to scoop this 2-3 inches of water from the bottom of the trough and to pour it into the small bucket placed on the bottom of the trough which – when full – is lifted out and thrown onto the field as before in Step 2 ;when merely emptying the trough! The placement of this bucket in the trough is essential. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to scoop water from the trough bottom with the dustpan, lift the said dustpan full of water and unstable in one’s hand out of the trough and throw it away without spilling some or all of it over one’s arms, legs or hands?
  • Step Five is to release briefly the ball valve to allow some clean water to flow into the now empty trough which – after tying up the ball valve again in a repeat of Step One then using the dustpan – can be ‘slopped over’ the inside trough sides to rinse off these dirty sides. This is followed by a repeat of Step Four and then – having decided that the trough is as clean as permitted in the time available and one’s willingness to stand on the edge of field with a cold mid-February wind blowing in one’s face;
  • Step Six is to release the ball valve and allow the trough to fill with all that gloriously clean water for the cows to drink.

As farmers, small-holders or horse owners walk by a water trough, they should ask themselves if they would drink that water. If the answer is ‘YES’ then no problem as they can walk away with a smile but – if the answer’s ‘NO’ then the water needs to be changed and the trough cleaned – following Steps One to Six above of course!

WHAT ELSE IS WATER USED FOR ON THE DAIRY FARM? The cleaning of milking parlours, dairies and the milking equipment after every twice-a-day milking uses a lot of clean water and – if the farm sources its own water from a borehole, well or other local source – that water has to be tested routinely for purity by Welsh Government approved sources. And if it doesn’t meet the stringent tests for purity then the farmer has problems and must change his source of water or purify it asap! Always a worrying time when those tests are due!

ALL THIS TALK HAS BEEN JUST ABOUT COWS, hasn’t it, but surely other farm livestock need to drink water as well don’t they? Well these days, a lot of sheep are brought inside buildings; often just for a few weeks before and after lambing so that the shepherding farmer can help the ewes if help is needed. Often the ewes are sheared before being housed because without their fleece – and being so bulky with their pregnancies – they take up much less space and so many more can be housed[6] than if they still had their fleece!   OK, so they need water as well as food don’t they? But it’s not as simple as that with all sheep – as some ewes having lived all their lives perhaps in the hills with plentiful supplies of freshwater in streams – will not drink unless the water supply is actually moving! So if they won’t drink from a water trough then ‘an artificial stream’ has to be created inside the farm building so that the sheep are willing and able to drink. Farmers have been known to divert drainpipes from the roof gutters of a building into an open channel inside the building that then flows across, at, or near ground level to simulate a stream. So, these fussy ewes may then decide to drink!

Probably it has been mentioned before in one of these Newsletters that nowadays the wool of the sheep contributes very little to the profitability of most sheep flocks – usually less than £1 per ewe or about 1% of sales per ewe per year[7]. But it hasn’t always been like that. If you have read that book that we talked about some months ago called ‘I bought a farm’ by Thomas Firbank, it will have told you how – at the time that the book was written in 1949 – the sale of wool was a very important part of his Snowdonian Farm income.

So important was this sale of wool that.- to gain top prices – Thomas Firbank’s upland sheep were ‘washed’ before shearing. Alright you say, “But what on earth does it mean to wash a sheep before shearing and why?”

Well, it’s inevitable isn’t it that by the time shearing comes around each year in May, June or July, any sheep kept outside in all weathers and conditions for the previous year, will have dust and dirt embedded in its fleece – plus the grease of course. Nowadays most sheep farmers don’t bother to wash out this dirt but ‘reports suggest’ that even until the 1970s the ewes were washed before shearing on at least one farm in Brechfa. Mind you, this farmer did send his daughters out to collect ‘Stinging Nettles’ to use as bedding on the night before washing, rather than have the fleece become full of straw after the ewes had laid down!

And what about this ‘washing of ewes’, eh? Well, according to Thomas Firbank above, each ewe had to be manhandled and dropped from a height into the water so that the entire ewe was submerged. If the ewe – and rams and ewe lambs to be sheared – were allowed to just walk into the water, then they would just swim across and the wool on their backs would not get wet at all! Quite a labour-intensive job this; lifting every sheep in the flock and swinging it around before dropping it over the edge into the stream. And stream or small river it was, as it had to be deep enough to cover the entire sheep – so at least 3 feet deep.

On other farms, a small dam was made across a stream – often with rocks from the village or farm quarry – so that when the sluice left in the middle of the dam during ‘the non-washing season’ was blocked, the stream would back up and form a pond into which ewes to be sheared could be driven by the farm dog. These washed ewes would then be allowed to drain, dry off and sheared some 2-3 days later.

Apparently these farmers always used to reckon that the premium for each washed fleece paid by the wool buyer, more than made up for the loss of fleece weight when all the grease, dust and dirt was washed out! It would certainly need to be worthwhile to do yet another time-consuming job, wouldn’t it!   And it was a rather widespread practice as well because there are many so-called ‘dipping bridges’ in South Wales over some rather deep-water courses. The Farmers Weekly magazine – probably in the 1970s – had a photograph of ‘The Dipping Bridge in Merthyr Mawr’ near Bridgend over the River Ogmore, showing a sheep dropping from the square-shaped hole in the bridge wall through which the sheep would be manhandled to fall into the river some 10-12 feet below. A bit like ‘walking the plank’ isn’t it, except that the washed ewe would only have to swim a short distance to safety!

Although these bridges with the square or rectangular shaped exits in the bridge walls – often together with a small platform of some 6 inches for the ewe to stand on outside the bridge wall – are called ‘Dipping bridges’ a more accurate name would be ‘Washing Bridge’ since sheep are only washed in water, and the term ‘dipping’ involves soaking the sheep with an insecticide to kill external parasites – such as lice, ticks and mites. More of that another time perhaps?

Another farmer near Llandovery says that he remembers the washing of sheep because everybody did it – until the late 1970s anyway. He said that although there might have been a few pence extra on the fleece value, the main reason why farmers did it that he remembers was that the washing washed out the grease and dirt from the wool and made shearing – with either blade shears[8] or the more usual now mechanical shears – much easier and quicker too, which can be important with a large number of ewes in the flock.

AND OUR WATER NOW? The amount of water used in the average household varies across England and Wales. Apparently, people in households that pay by meter nearly always use less than those who pay a fixed charge. So, does this mean that if you can watch how much you use then you tend to use less? Mind you, most people have their water meters hidden away under the stairs or on the wall outside the house, don’t they and it’s a bit difficult to see them regularly there?

Apparently, in the UK in 2018 the average single person living at home used 149 litres of water each day, and a household of five used 523 litres of water per day. So the average water usage for a standard household in the UK is about 191,000 litre or 191 m3 per year with a water bill of almost £400. Compare this with the estimated water drunk by the average Welsh dairy herd of 98 cows of 12,250 litre per day and it seems a lot. But in fact, one average household uses the same amount of water in a year, as a 98 cow herd drinks in 16 days.

This looks as though we humans in UK use a lot of water doesn’t it? But compare this with Canadians currently using an average of 329 litres of water per person per day – this is second only to the United States in the developed world, and more than twice as much as us!

AND WHAT ABOUT THE UNMENTIONABLES? Hmm, we all know that the water that goes into our cows and sheep as drinking water comes out mixed with their dung as slurry, don’t we – at least during the Winter when they are housed? So presumably the Water that comes into our houses as piped Water has to come out somewhere after it has been used, doesn’t it?

Would you be surprised to know that the largest use of household water[9] is to flush the toilet – and the average household does that 6-10 times daily – and after that, to take showers and baths? OK you say, so the shower water has a bit of soap and hair shampoo in it, but that’s fairly clean, eh? What about the rest of it? Well, there’s the Main Drainage Network managed by Welsh Water which is the Main Sewerage disposal system to which most urban housing is connected and which takes waste-water and sewage to the ‘Sewage Works’. But the Main Sewers have yet to reach many rural areas, and many houses – whether on-farm or not – have their own Cess Pits or Septic Tanks[10]. If you are connected to the Main Sewers then all your wastewater disappears down into these ‘foul sewers’ – never to be seen by you again and the cost of its disposal is included in your bill for Water Supply.

But if you have either a Cess Pit or Septic Tank then, when emptying it, it’s up to you to transport it from either of these to your nearest Sewage Treatment Works. Possibly there are those enterprising individuals amongst us who insist on transporting this Sewerage effluent by hand in a covered bucket or even poured into a 5-gallon plastic drum! But most people contract with a sewerage removal business who come in with a tanker lorry and siphon out of the Pit or Tank through a flexible 8-10-inch diameter pipe.

And what next with all this ‘waste stuff’, you ask? Well, the days of seeing pieces of white paper flapping about in the wind in a field onto which the ‘raw sewage’ had been spread are gone: since the 1990s all sewage must undergo a treatment process to make it safe for both the environment and our health. These days this sewage is recognised not only as being a waste product, but at the same time being a valuable source of plant nutrients, trace elements and organic matter for agricultural land and when applied annually is a cost effective and sustainable fertiliser for both arable crops and grassland.

But to be used for farming purposes, our sewage has to go through an Advanced Anaerobic Digestion Plant [AAD] which are very expensive and Welsh Water have some that are operational or will be in the next 2 years – Port Talbot, Cardiff, Hereford [being converted from Conventional Digestion] and Wrexham [late 2019] and more are planned. At a cost of £50-60 million to build, these AADs are not cheap are they? The final product of all this sewage wastewater treatment process is called Biosolids and are used as a sustainable soil enhancer and offer many benefits over chemical fertilisers. They can be applied every year to both arable land and to grassland.

WHAT ABOUT THESE BIOSOLIDS THEN? Are they wet and sloppy like ordinary sewage and smell appalling – especially in hot weather? Well actually no, they aren’t! What goes into the sewer outside your house – is screened and fermented in heated tanks to reduce the water content and at the same time makes it almost ‘pathogen free’. During this ‘Anaerobic Digestion’ process, the Methane Gas produced is collected and used for renewable energy and heat. So after going through this AAD process, your sewage is a very different product!

As a result of these treatment processes, biosolids are easily transportable, at 25% dry matter they have the same moisture content as the Farmyard Manure that is made up of cow dung, urine and straw, but hardly smells at all and is almost totally free of any pathogens and causes of disease. Physically it’s a bit like those fruit cakes that your mother used to make for Christmas and Easter – but without the Marzipan of course! It breaks up in your hands when rolled around in them, and this ‘cake’ is easily spread onto the field in a normal muck spreader.

And Welsh Water are always looking for farmers within 40 miles or so of their AAD Plants who have easy access in Winter and hard standings for delivery by Heavy Goods Vehicles. Do you know of anybody who might be interested in this waste product that is currently delivered free-of-charge? After all, these Biosolids contain the following elements:

  • Nitrogen – in both its readily available and slow release forms thus able to provide a consistent supply through the growing season.
  • Phosphorous – can provide the crop needs for 2 seasons of crops and – as most rock phosphate for manufactured fertiliser comes from North Africa and particularly Morocco – its use reduces the depletion of this scarce resource and limits waste miles!
  • Potassium – as potash
  • Sulphur
  • Magnesium – which can help to prevent hypomagnesaemia that is characterised in cattle and sheep by nervous signs, including initial excitement with bellowing, muscles spasms, tetany, convulsions and sudden death – and usually occurs in cows after calving.
  • Boron, Copper, Zinc, Iron, Sodium, Manganese, Aluminium, and Molybdenum – all important especially in low organic matter sandy soils.

But, you say, what about Carmarthen and all the raw sewerage from houses around there with Cess Pits and Septic tanks – what happens to all that? Don’t worry – all of this is piped through the Main Sewers or delivered by tanker to the Conventional Digestion Plant in Johnston just outside Carmarthen – which is one of 20-30 similar sites in Wales. There it is mixed, dewatered, separated and the residue taken by lorry to Port Talbot AAD Plant where it becomes Biosolids and can be spread onto farmland!

PROBABLY YOU NEVER THOUGHT THAT YOU HAD ALL THESE GOOD THINGS IN YOU, DID YOU? And how in the first place did we get onto all this sewage business in this Newsletter is hard to imagine, isn’t it! But perhaps it’s just a development of the current talk about the need for SUSTAINABILITY AND RECYCLING, eh?

After all, our land provides every one of us with almost all of our food and water, without which we would not survive. We then eat the crops that we grow and livestock that we rear and find the water for the livestock and for ourselves. Then, each day or so we humans empty ourselves and start to eat and drink again. This product that we produce when emptying ourselves can then – as described above – be a part of the needs for the growing of the next generation of crops and livestock. Or is it being too simplistic to describe this as just part of the ‘cycle of life’ ?

This recycling’s part of normal farming systems in many other countries that we have probably talked about before, haven’t we? In the Plantain Banana growing areas of South and Western Uganda and surrounding countries, each day the ‘woman of the family’ digs a hole in the ground at the base of one of their many Banana trees near the house, into which all family members would perform their ablutions. Next day, the ‘offerings’ of the previous day would be covered over, and a new hole dug at the base of a different tree. Those Banana trees do grow well on this ‘recycling’ because in those areas, Banana is the staple food crop providing most of the populations energy requirements and having passed through these humans, provides nutrients and energy for the next growth of Bananas to be eaten by the family.

Perhaps it’s more organised than this in other parts of the world? I can remember a working trip in Hainan Prefecture in Qinghai Province of North-Western China near the border with Tibet. Staying overnight in a local school building and getting up early to get ready to eat and be off to talk with farmers, the first thing was to visit the latrines. These were strategically sited in the school grounds with a long concrete slab on the contour of a slope. The slab had a row of round holes – each some 18 inches in diameter – above which one had to squat to ‘do one’s business’. Below the hole was a drop of about 12 feet at which level there appeared not to be much evidence of the offerings of previous users of the hole – merely a level area scraped clean. Having achieved the necessary squatting down in an unfamiliar position, I glanced down the hole only to be met with the gaze of a gleefully expectant ‘latrine attendant’ holding his shovel out to receive ‘gifts from above’. Whether this was his approach for all users of these ablutions was not vouchsafed by our Chinese co-workers, as this was a sensitive subject!

AND WHAT ABOUT THE JULY NEWSLETTER? Well, ‘the Longest Day’ has been and gone and the pessimists amongst us all say that we are now moving downhill towards Winter. But July is mid-Summer, the first brood of Swallows are flying, young Blue Tits are coming to the birdfeeders under the watchful eye of the farm cats that are waiting for any mistakes on their part. In the Lowlands, the second crop of Silage is coming in and farmers are thinking about spreading the slurry onto the aftermath – perhaps even some Biosolids, eh?

Not sure about July’s Newsletter, maybe it’s time to talk about Bovine TB and all the implications that that disease has had and still has on the UK’s population, the livestock industry and the grassland on which those livestock feed. Not a happy thought perhaps but it’s a connection between Farming and Wildlife – and that’s what this Newsletter is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?


Peter Beeden                                                                                      27 June 2019

[1] Water pressure is the measure of force to get water through the mains and into your pipework. In UK, water pressure is usually measured in psi units [Pounds per Square Inch].  Put simply – hopefully anyway – pressure is measured in “bars” – with one bar being about the equivalent of atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level = 15psi; equal to the force required to push water up to the height of 10 metres or about 32 feet.  So if the tank with the water is stored at the top of the hill that is 60 feet above the trough to which it is piped, then the water pressure at the trough would be about 2 bars, which is good – but not excellent if the trough is small and there are many cows wanting to drink from it!

[2] Medium density polyethylene, also known as alkathene, is a tough and flexible thermoplastic which is used in the manufacture of usually black or blue water pipe with a high chemical resistance, and high prevention of algae, bacteria and fungi build-up.

[3] Most Counties in England and Wales were also creating these Starter Farms – either buying them in or being left in some beneficiaries will.  These are generally smaller farm units that were intended to rent out to people with perhaps experience as a farm worker but not having managed a farm themselves before.  Over what were relatively short letting periods of 8-10 years, these Starter Farms were intended to provide a first step onto ‘the Farming Ladder’ for new recruits, after which they were expected to move on to rent or buy their own farm.  Due to funding constraints, many Councils have – since 2008 – been selling these farms to raise funds for general services for the public.

[5] Milk composition differs widely between species, including the type of protein; the proportion of protein, fat, and sugar; and the levels of various vitamins and minerals.  For example:

  • Human milkcontains, on average, 89% water and 1.1% protein, 4.2% fat, 7.0% lactose sugar, and supplies 72 kcal of energy per 100 grams.
  • Cow’s milk contains, on average, 87% water and 3.4% protein, 3.6% fat, and 4.6% lactose, 0.7% mineralsand supplies 66 kcal of energy per 100 grams.

Donkey and Horse milk both have a lower fat content than either cow or human milk, while the milk of Seals and Whales may contain more than 50% fat!


[6] They reckon that if you shear sheep before housing then 15-20% more ewes can be fitted into the same size shed, than if they still have all their wool.

[7] John Nix Pocketbook for Farm Management, 2019.

[8] Blade shears consist of two blades arranged similarly to scissors except that the hinge is at the end farthest from the point and not in the middle. The cutting edges pass each other as the shearer squeezes them together and shear the wool close to the animal’s skin. They were the predecessor of machine shears and harder to use!

[9] So apparently, a toilet flush in a non-modern ULF toilet is 12-14 litres [3 gallons], whilst an average shower is 20 litres [4-5 gallons], a washing machine wash takes about 60 litres [14 gallons] and even a dishwasher takes 15 litres [3 gallons]!

[10] Both cesspits and septic tanks collect wastewater and sewage from households and businesses that are not connected to the mains sewer.  A cesspit is a sealed underground tank that simply collects wastewater and sewage. There is no processing or treatment involved. A cesspit is usually located underground with a manhole cover giving access for waste collection and regular emptying. The time between empties depends on the size of the property, number of occupants and the size of the tank itself – it may need to be emptied monthly, quarterly or annually, or any point in between.

In contrast, although septic tanks are buried underground in the same way as cesspits, a simple treatment process is used which allows the treated wastewater to drain away to a soakaway or stream. A soakaway is a hole dug in the ground and filled with rubble and coarse stones. As wastewater enters the first tank, solids settle at the bottom and begin to decompose aided by bacteria in the tank , while liquid flows through to the second chamber. This allows any smaller suspended solids to settle and the water to exit the tank through the soakaway. Mind you, it’s advisable to have sludge removed from the septic tank regularly, ideally every six months or so.