Changing face of farming in Wales; Declines in cropping and hill farming trigger calls for rethink.
THE on-line publication of old tithe maps is shedding new light on Wales' changing agricultural fortunes over the past two centuries.
Maps and documents from the 1840s show that arable farming was far more common in 19th century Wales than it is today - even on the highest mountains - while trees are now much more abundance on farmland than in the past.
The FUW, which commissioned an initial comparison study of old tithe and modern farm IACS maps, claimed the trends placed a question mark over current environmental policies in Wales.
An army of over 850 volunteers have digitised Wales' 1,212 tithe maps for the Heritage Lottery-funded Cynefin project, based at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
These were originally drawn up to keep a record of tithes, a type of tax payable by farmers to the church.
More than a quarter of a million field names are now listed on the cynefin.wales website, enabling historians and students to assess changes in land use in a way not previously possible.
Project manager Einion Gruffudd: "The tithe records don't just categorise land, they also name the fields, enabling us to identify fields which are today under water, in the middle of busy towns, or deep in forests.
"Only 1m people lived in Wales in the 1840s compared with over 3m today, but there were far more farms and much more land was used for crop production compared to today."
A single, unified tithe map for the whole of Wales has also been created, now freely accessible on the Cynefin website.
It shows that farmland was lost not only to urbanisation and reservoirs but also to forestry, while vast areas of what was previously used for arable production are now given over to grass or open mountain land.
The maps are being used by Aberystwyth University students in an FUW-commissioned study into historic land uses.
This is comparing agricultural land use in six Welsh parishes, including Llangystennin and Dolbenmaen in Caernarfonshire, and Llanfechain in Montgomeryshire.
Nick Fenwick, the FUW's head of policy, said the initial findings help to dispel some of the "myths" about how Welsh farming has evolved.
"One of the most significant of these is the degree to which farming has become less intensive on higher ground during the past two centuries or so," he said.
This should be taken into consideration when formulating future farm policy, he said - particularly by those advocating changes in land use for environmental purposes.
While environmental management had brought major benefits in some areas, restrictions in others - especially the removal of grazing livestock in the uplands - had caused huge damage, claimed Mr Fenwick, who co-authored the report.
"In our experience, many of these restrictions were introduced with little or no reference to historical land use, while some seem to be based upon inaccurate preconceptions about farming rather than evidence," he said. "In many cases the restrictions are based upon highly inaccurate habitat maps which bear little relation to reality.
"It seems nobody bothered to ask the families who have been farming the land for centuries about how their farming practices and grazing patterns may have changed."
Many of the big changes in Welsh farming, such as the abandonment of arable production and the creation of vast forestry plantations, occurred during the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War.
By recording tithe data, the Cynefin project is, in effect, establishing a baseline for measuring how land use have changed over the years.
"It will also help provide a clearer picture as to whether it is really appropriate to penalise people for ploughing fields that their forefathers were ploughing routinely and growing crops on from the 1840s well into the 1950s," added Mr Fenwick.
FROM LEFT: A graph showing drastic falls in arable production since the 1840s, and increases in farm woodland; Tithe map of the Llanfechain parish, with yellow spots for crops; A graph showing the large proportion of land given over to arable production in the 1840s, and its subsequent decline; and an original 1840s tithe map of the mountainous parish of Dolbenmaen, Caernarfonshire, overlaid with Cynefin data
An 1840s tithe map of the Kerry parish, Montgomeryshire, being digitised for the Cynefin project