KILLING FIELDS; Farmer John Pugh says it's conservationists who are responsible for demise of song birds.
"I HAVE no hesitation in saying it's terrorism in the countryside. How else can you explain what is happening?"
Hill farmer John Pugh, from Llanwrthwl, Rhayader, is talking about rural predators - the raptors, crows and magpies, badgers, foxes and squirrels - that have decimated song birds numbers.
Fish populations have also suffered at the hands of otters and mink which have thrived unchecked in the Welsh countryside.
He became so frustrated at the fashion for protecting predators that, in 2001, he was one of the prime movers in establishing Songbird Survival Trust, a charity that campaigns for a countryside that is managed in "balance".
Mr Pugh says the answer is to revisit the past, when predators were controlled and native breeds of cattle performed the twin tasks of making the uplands productive and improving wildlife habitats.
Cattle, he says, increase the number of insects which are so vital as the first level of the wildlife food chain. They also trample down the bracken, providing food and habitat for song birds.
Mr Pugh's family has farmed in the Cambrian Mountains since the 1600s and his life revolves around farming and the rural way of life.
His home is full of books on wildlife, birds and countryside management, and he points in particular to a run of bound volumes of the Ministry of Agriculture Journal from 1924 to 1930.
"That contains what you need to know to have a living countryside," he says.
He looks back to the days of his youth when the dawn chorus would accompany his walk down the hills to school, and when he could tickle armfuls of trout from the streams on the way home.
Neighbours would fish for salmon that measured to a man's shoulder, he said.
Now, he says, the birds have gone and he hears only the rough cries of corvids like crows and magpies. And he has seen otters chase hen trout and salmon upstream and kill them before they have time to lay their eggs.
"This valley used to ring with bird song when I was a lad, and now it's full of silent fields," he says.
Back in those days, buyers would flock to the area to buy native breed cattle for finishing in lowland areas of England.
Mr Pugh says farmers are blamed for the death of the song birds and netsmen - in estuaries or at sea - are blamed for the dearth of fish. But he blames the misguided theories of conservationists that have caught the ears of civil servants and ministers
"Managing the countryside is an apprenticeship handed down from generation to generation," he said.
"If you don't have that you can't expect someone from the middle of Cardiff to come to the uplands of Wales and know the kind of things to look for."
Mr Pugh can reel off the mistakes that have created the silent fields of the Welsh countryside: the 30-month rule that means native breeds - that were not hit by BSE - aren't given time to mature; the increase in forestry that helped foxes and squirrels; the local abattoirs driven to closure; the fashion for fencing streams; the prohibition on burning off moorland; the compulsion on farmers to remove the carcasses of fallen stock that kept predators and insects fed; and, of course, the protection of badgers, otters and raptors.
"We're not saying there should not be otters or sparrow hawks herons or badgers," he says.
"But when there are more badgers than foxes in Wales there's not much hope for ground nesting birds.
"The gamekeeper, the farmer and the bailiff looked after the countryside and kept it in balance.
Now there's an army of people who have little experience of living in the countryside spending hundreds of thousands of pounds creating habitats for vermin."
Older farmers say the Elan Valley's 60,000 acres used to accommodate thousands of cattle.
Now there are fewer than 300, although that number is rising because the Elan Valley Trust is beginning to see what these animals are capable of, said Mr Pugh.
He has his own herd of native breeds - Welsh Blacks, Blue Greys, Belted Galloways, Highland, Luings and a couple of rare old White cattle he bought recently, all of which run with a Beef Shorthorn bull.
"The Shorthorn was a forgotten breed at one time, but it's a very good crossing breed," he says.
He recently sold his upland sheep farm to a young couple and now concentrates on his cattle, which he regards as a vital element of a managed, wildlife-rich countryside. He points to a 2005 survey on part of his land - Crawnant Rhos - which detailed 48 species of rare plants and flowers on fields that his cattle had grazed and trampled.
"I don't remember when I last saw so much round-leaved sundew," says the survey report by Nick Myhill and Hilary Shepherd.
It's a different story elsewhere. Mr Pugh says the only pair of lapwings that in recent years have nested successfully in his home valley are the stuffed ones he bought in an auction sale a couple of years ago.
"A lot has to be done before the 13 farms in Cwm Valley will see lapwings and curlews nesting here again," he added
John Pugh of Llanwrthwl with a picture of a Dartford Warbler - almost unheard in today's countryside Picture ERFYL LLOYD DAVIES