The Cambrian Mountains, an upland glacial plateau split by river valleys and reservoirs (and a few natural lakes, such as some of the Teifi Pools), run from the northern edge of Carmarthenshire to the southern edge of Yr Eryri. A vast and peaceful open space with few traces of human activity, they are, unfairly, far less well-known than Bannau Brycheiniog / the Brecon Beacons or Eryri / Snowdonia.
Governments in Cardiff and Westminster alike have long overlooked the region due to its low population density. Even for the local county councils, the Cambrian Mountains – Mynyddoedd Cambria – are somewhat out of the way, leaving the grazed hills largely unchanged for years.
Nothing stands forever
Originally the term ‘Cambrian Mountains’ was applied in a general sense to most of upland Wales. Since the 1950s, the name has become increasingly localised to the geographically homogeneous Mid Wales uplands of Pumlumon, Elenydd, and Mynydd Mallaen. The designation Cambrian Mountains is perhaps something of a misnomer: their highest point, Pen Pumlumon Fawr, is 752m.
Landscapes like this, untouched by urbanisation and industrialisation, are increasingly rare in our ever-more developed world. And they are more important than ever for the health and well-being of present and future generations.
Nothing stands still forever, though. Two principal changes are encroaching on the region.
Firstly, the traditional farming community is ageing and every year some families sell up. Companies are buying up Mid Wales farms to plant swathes of more non-native conifers for future timber production and/or ‘offsetting’ carbon emissions. Conifers have been the mainstay of the forestry industry for over a century, of course. Yet, when divorced from their native ecosystems, these trees are especially vulnerable to climate change and the proliferation of tree diseases.
Their long term viability and actual contribution to carbon capture is speculative. At the same time they affect the landscape’s value for other uses; reduce biodiversity and climate change resilience of the native ecosystems; harm the soil’s suitability for future pasture; and change water run-off patterns, leading to acidification and greater risk of flooding.
Secondly, developers backed by international investment capital are proposing several sites – including that adjacent to the highest point in Mid Wales – for wind farms three times the size of traditional onshore turbines, at a massive 180m (580ft). Since Wales already generates as much renewable energy as it is able to consume (due to the intermittent nature of renewables and the engineering of the grid, which was designed for wholly controllable supplies), these turbines would be generating electricity for export.
Canary in a wind farm
Wind farms offer a windfall for those landowners who lease their acres for development, and a guaranteed return for the shareholders. But the installation of such enormous towers, visible from Aberystwyth to Llandovery, would cause yet further damage to Wales’ biodiversity and resilience to climate change. They would also massively dominate the surrounding landscape, undermining the future value of the entire region for those who depend upon tourism.
Capital has always found ways to exploit land for good returns, and these industries are no different. But unlike past forms of land use in the Cambrians, such as farming and mining, neither of these future potential land uses will generate much local employment.
Forestry, on its 30-40 year planting-to-harvesting cycle, employs only a small fraction of the people who formerly worked in farming. Energy parks employ almost no one once the flurry of construction and installation work is done. For the communities that built the chapels and populated the schools, pubs, and shops, neither of these potential outcomes offers a way back from years of slow decline.
A Senedd petition in 2022 proposing designation of the uplands as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) received enormous popular support, but cannot be implemented for some years yet and, in times of straitened budgets, may never be. Nor is designation any magic bullet.
With or without diversification of farm businesses, which an AONB could support, the ultimate future of Welsh upland farming for food production will be determined by the Sustainable Farming Scheme and international competition. Nor would designation constrain afforestation to native species and selective felling.
The result is a paradox: a seemingly empty and timeless landscape which is actually in the thick of debate as to what Wales’ future should look like, and whose conception of it should prevail.
Cries from the Cambrian Mountains
The future of the Mid Wales uplands and their communities should not simply be left to the markets to decide without a wider, fully-informed discussion being held. The market, prioritising shareholder profits this year and next above all else, naturally takes advantage of individuals’ and communities’ limited power and resources, and of policymakers’ inattention to matters out of sight or longer term.
Left to themselves, markets repeatedly produce long-term outcomes undesirable for all: outsourcing waste to the environment, holding essential workers in conditions of penury and, in many cases, delivering the most limited services or cheapest goods to millions of consumers.
Maybe the ultimate answer is that society at large is happy to see these remote hills sprout gigantic power stations delivering energy to the rest of the UK and beyond, and profits to investors wherever they may be based. Maybe society will agree that the predicted need for timber and chipboard 40 years hence outweighs the quality of life, and chance to develop other businesses, of the communities of today.
Maybe, though, some as-yet-unthought of future use could be identified and deliver yet greater value to the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to look after themselves. Who knows?
Surely all those affected by the potential loss of an irreplaceable asset have a right to be made aware that, explicitly or not, a choice for the long-term future is being made, right now? They, too, should have the chance to contribute their voices to the debate.
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