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Where have all the new babies gone?

Byline: By SALLY WILLIAMS Western Mail

Ceredigion is the least fertile place in the whole of Britain, according to new research. So is it something in the water? THERE are fewer babies born in Ceredigion than anywhere else in Wales or indeed, the whole of Britain. Figures published by the Chartered Society for Physiotherapy showed 31,400 babies were born across Wales last year - a general fertility rate of 54.3 babies per 1,000 women of child-bearing age which is below the British average of 55 babies.

Ceredigion has the lowest birth rate in Wales, with 39.3 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age. Second lowest is Cardiff on 50.

Just 612 babies were born in Ceredigion, a county with a a population of 74,000 and a general fertility rate of just 39.3.

The general health of the population is good, with couples suffering no more fertility problems than anywhere else.

So what could be the reason for this lack of fertility?

We hear media reports of the Bridget Jones generation, who are staying single and child-free well into their thirties.

Perhaps the rural county, which has a higher than average academic record, has lots of career-minded women that are putting family life on the back-burner while waiting for Mr Right.

Helen Rogers, Wales head of the Royal College of Midwives, says many women tend to put their careers first and wait to have babies later in life these days.

She says, 'There has been a big change in the age of first-time mothers and there is nothing unusual about a woman aged 37 having her first baby.

'But when they reach this age they can sometimes view pregnancy as an illness and feel they need to be cared for in hospital when home birth is a safe option for all fit and healthy mothers of any age.

'However, an increasing amount of our work now concerns caring for women who have more complicated pregnancies because mothers who would not have been able to have children 10 to 15 years ago can now have children.'

Mother-of-six Sheila Howells, 54, and her husband, John, 55, who farm at Llanrhystud, certainly buck the current Ceredigion low fertility trend.

Although Sheila had originally just wanted one boy and a girl, she ended up having four sons and two daughters, after the couple, who met while studying at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, settled down together.

Her eldest son, Rhys Howells, 31, plays Jason in S4C's Pobol y Cwm. Then there's Llyr, 28, Hedd, 26, Rhodri 23, Angharad, 19 and Elin, 14.

Rhys, who will celebrate his birthday on Boxing Day, was in the limelight as soon as he was born, getting a mention in the local newspaper, The Cambrian News, that was keen to find a Christmas baby, under the headline, 'The stork arrives four hours late'. His wife Rhian played Karen in Pobol y Cwm.

Sheila doesn't think any of her children will think of having more than two children each.

She said, 'After Christmas, the children would come home saying what a lot of presents their friends had received but they would have to share theirs between them all.'

Sheila believes financial constraints can have a lot to do with whether couples choose not to have too many children.

She said, 'People say that we as farmers must be very rich to have had six children. This isn't true, although we do regard ourselves as being very blessed because we have six lovely children and we enjoy good health.

'The children were brought up on mostly second-hand items and clothes from friends or bought at charity shop and since my husband and I were working on the farm the same was true for us.

'The children also earned their keep since they have all played their part to help out with the farm work where we couldn't afford to pay for outside help.

'I have also been accused of being selfish by having so many children when the world is overpopulated already - although my husband used to joke that we as Welsh speakers were obligated to have as many as possible.'

Father-of-two Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, believes that academically high achievers tend to have fewer children.

He says, 'There is a link that shows the more educated people are the less children they have.

'We have a very high level of educational attainment in Ceredigion, coming in the top five for A-level results in Wales and England.

Like many other professionals working within the county, he believes rural depopulation is the main reason for the trend.

He says, 'I certainly don't think it's something in the water or that we are less fertile here than anywhere else.

'Young people are leaving the county to live elsewhere and they are having their children outside Ceredigion.'

The county has two university towns, Aberystwyth and Lampeter, and it is thought that its large number of students could skew the figures, too.

The top areas for birthrates were Britain's most deprived areas including Newham and Tower Hamlets, but Mr Thomas ruled out a suggestion that by being bottom of the table, Ceredigion must be a wealthy county.

He says, 'The average household income here is quite low but we also have a trend of wealthier older people moving into the county.'

Mona Morris, the first woman Mayor of Aberystwyth and the town's current Deputy Mayor, agrees with her MP.

The mother-of-three says, 'I think rural depopulation could well be the cause of the low birth rate.

'There is a tendency in Aberystwyth that you have to be a Welsh speaker for most of the jobs, so Welsh people who were born here end up looking elsewhere for work. That happens a lot.

'When my children were young I would see lots of mothers walking the prom with prams, but that doesn't happen so much now.

'I know quite a few mothers in their late thirties who have turned to IVF treatment to have babies.'

But Monica Williams, chief officer of Ceredigion Community Council, said she was convinced that the low birth rate was down to social rather than health reasons.

She says, 'We have a low birth rate going through Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth and it is well below 1,000 babies a year.

'Perhaps we have lots of working mums here that tend to have smaller families.'

Parents with young families in Aberystwyth in particular can almost feel as if they are cut off from the rest of Wales, because its road links to other major towns and cities are poor and there is a lack of shops for children's items.

Guy Pargeter, a father-of-four from Llangynfelyn, believes a lack of affordable housing is also pushing young families out of the county.

And he could have a point, because the availability of housing in areas like Newport, Gwent, has been cited as a contributing factor to its high fertility rate.

Mr Pargeter said, 'There are lots of older people with loads of money moving in to the county and there is a huge amount of house building going on.

'But the house prices in Ceredigion are rising so fast that nobody who lives here can afford to buy them.'

The Rev Andy John, Vicar of Aberaeron's Holy Trinity church, said the county had a large number of elderly incomers, who were attracted by its countryside and low crime rate.

He says, 'The number of christening services are down, but I think that's more to do with people feeling more removed from the Church, that would once have played a larger part in family life.

'It is common to have two jobs in the same household now, rather than being the exception as it once was, and I think that could contribute to the low birth rate.

'Ceredigion is a conservative community with traditional values and there is still a strong sense of family and community here.'

Although the birth rate is currently low, there are plenty of large families throughout the county, and while some of its schools are struggling to stay open, others are expanding to accommodate more pupils.

When two of her sons started to work on the farm, Sheila Howells looked for another job and now she works at the Bronglais Hospital's maternity unit at Aberystwyth where she sees babies being brought into the world.

Sheila added, 'Having babies is a very happy time in people's lives.'
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 10, 2004
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