‘Search for the holy grain’: lost Welsh crops offer hope for future varieties

One farmer’s quest to find black oats has broadened into a project that could rediversify the country’s cereals and meet future climate challenges. Pictures and words by Alexander TurnerPods of oats fly into the air – shards of golden light caught on the sea …


Pods of oats fly into the air – shards of golden light caught on the sea breeze. Two septuagenarian farmers wobble precariously above the moving parts of an old reaper-binder as it chugs, not quite effortlessly, through an acre of heritage cereal crops.

For Gerald Miles, 74, it’s the first time since he was a small boy that such an event has occurred on his clifftop farm on the coast of Pembrokeshire. For decades, Miles believed the once common black oats of Wales had been lost for ever. This belief, confirmed by an unanswered request for seed in Farmers Weekly magazine after he lost his own in a storm, set him on a mission of rediscovery that he calls “the search for the holy grain”.

His quest has involved help from many unlikely sources and was the catalyst for the formation of a collection of growers, Llafur Ni (Welsh for “our grains”), who intend to never again let precious ancient grains be at risk of extinction. It is a project that, according to the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers) at Aberystwyth University, doesn’t just look to the past but could influence the future sustainability of cereal crops in the face of a heating climate.

Iwan Evans, 78, can remember a time when black oats were common, particularly in west Wales. “I left school in 1959, and at that time all farms were growing black oats,” he says. Miles and Evans both remember that oats were often grown alongside barley in a mixed crop called shipreys, which was used predominantly to feed animals; it was believed the black variety of oats gave horses “an extra furlong of energy”. As farming changed and working animals gave way to combine harvesters, which struggled with the tall oat crops, “black oats completely disappeared”, says Miles.

According to Katie Hastings, regional coordinator for the Gaia Foundation’s UK Seed Sovereignty Programme, the changing fortunes of black oats in Wales are representative of a wider homogenisation in farming, which has seen crop diversity fall by as much as 75%. “People are going more towards monocultures now – they don’t have mixed farms like they used to. Farmers have all livestock, whereas the mixed farms of the past would have had some vegetables, some grains and some animals,” she says.

Miles and Hastings founded Llafur Ni in 2018 and the organisation now has about 30 small-scale growers and farmers. They hope that together they can share land, knowledge and seeds to rediversify and strengthen the once rich supplies of unique Welsh cereals that populated the country’s farms and fields.

Hastings says it is difficult to know precisely how many cereal varieties have already been lost. “We know that there are hundreds of varieties in gene banks, but there would have been even more that were never counted,” she says. “Each farm in each region would have had different varieties and different cereals because they would save their own seeds every year; over time, seeds adapt to their region and locality. Now, fewer people are growing grains and there is way less diversity in what they’re growing.”

Dr Catherine Howarth, the head of oat and pulse breeding at Ibers, says the loss of diversity within cereal crops is not just a loss for consumers, whose diets are becoming standardised, but could represent a perilous narrowing of the gene pool. “We know that modern oats have lost a lot of the genetic diversity that is present in some of these older varieties. The agricultural industry wanted to breed oats that were shorter and yielded more; a lot of the breeding progress over the first half of the 20th century was to that end. We don’t know what traits we’ve lost in the process,” she says.

In 2019, Howarth supplied Llafur Ni with 14 varieties of rare and precious oat seed from the gene bank at the Welsh Plant Breeding Station at Aberystwyth University. The bank’s seeds have been collected in Wales since 1919 and many are no longer grown at scale. Howarth’s job involves identifying important genetic traits within heritage oats so that they can be brought out of hibernation and bred into modern varieties needed to meet future climate challenges.

Howarth believes the work of Llafur Ni could yield significant results. “Understanding the performance of oats in different environments in Wales is really key, and what the farmers are doing provides some very interesting information,” she says. “It’s important to see how these varieties perform in a farmer’s field compared to how they perform with us in research station conditions.

“We used to have oats throughout the uplands in Wales, because they would have been grown for feeding horses and other livestock,” Howarth adds. “They would have survived conditions that we don’t grow oats in currently. In recent years, there has been increased drought, and in the future there may be changes in disease pressure and increased water-logging over winter. If we look at oats that grew in environments where those conditions were more prevalent historically, it may be there are traits of importance that we can bring into modern varieties.”

Miles and the other growers of Llafur Ni have been hard at work “bulking out” the small quantities of seed given to them by Howarth by growing the crop and resaving the seed year on year. Owen Shiers, a grower, folk musician and “rural revivalist”, says: “I only started off with a Tesco bag … Now, I’ve got two dumpy bags full.” Growers are able to increase the quantity of seed available and spread it across a greater number of growing spaces, increasing the resilience of the crop.

When Shiers first heard Miles was searching for black oats, he thought the description of the shiny grains sounded similar to a crop he had seen growing near his home in Machynlleth. The crop belonged to Evans, who Shiers knew through playing folk music. When Miles arrived in Machynlleth, for the first time in decades he saw black oats shining in the field. Hastings believes Evans was the very last farmer growing them. “We didn’t realise how rare we were,” says Evans.

As the sun sets on the pair harvesting an acre of black oats that have been successfully grown on Miles’s farm, the friendship between the two sings as loudly as the birds in the trees. A long August day has been spent harvesting not only the precious oats but also a heritage variety of wheat called April bearded. There is a smell like fresh bread on the sea air, and the Llafur Ni team are beginning to show signs of aches and pains in their arms and backs. All day, the freshly cut stalks and ears have tumbled lazily from the back of the reaper and been arranged into tall stacks of half a dozen sheaves leant together into a single structure so that the crop can air dry.

Miles, tired and smiling, says: “Farmers now have got to adapt to use less artificial fertiliser, fewer pesticides and farm more with nature. These ancient varieties – the cereals, barley, wheat and oats – have a role to play. They are ancient grains that were grown before artificial chemicals, and they can grow in low-fertility land.

“These are the seeds that will feed us through climate change.”

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