Farming, Droving & Mining


Gweithgaredd dynol yn y dirwedd: ffermwyr, porthmyn a mwyngloddwyr

cambrian-mountains-welsh-black-cattlewelsh blacks near moel y llyn sept 2016 1400

Apart from that land which is covered by water, the physical landscape of the Cambrian Mountains was, until the 1940s, almost exclusively given over to agriculture. Agriculture it was therefore that shaped that landscape, by clearance of scrub, by drainage, by grazing and by human occupation.  By the late 12th century, extensive pastures in the Cambrian Mountains were being grazed by herds of cattle and large flocks of sheep which provided the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida with its principal income.

Much of the area continued to be sparsely populated throughout most of the year, being exploited during the summer months by small dairy farms which, in the later mediaeval period, began to encroach upon the margins of the uplands.  A handful of small lead and zinc mines and stone quarries were established.  The uplands were also used for peat cutting for fuel, and by several drovers’ roads taking cattle to markets in the English Midlands, all at their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The changes that have taken place since the war – and the changes that threaten in the future – are largely associated with the decline of agricultural prosperity and employment.

These changes include:

  • Massive expansion of coniferous forestry.  In the post war years it was thought that in such “marginal agricultural” areas as the Cambrian Mountains the need for and financial viability of forestry products outweighed the requirement even for food. The change of use was often resented by farmers but they lacked the support of the rest of the community. Now, the expectations of financial viability of that forestry are known to have been misplaced, whilst its damaging visual, social and wildlife implications have become obvious for all to see. See our Issues page for more information
  • Decline and abandonment of some upland farms. One of the most obvious features of the physical landscape is the abandoned farmsteads. Visually they are often attractive, but behind that attraction lies the human story, with its corollary of the disappearance of schools, shops and community.
  • Changes to farming support schemes.  Financial pressures on agriculture are likely to be at least as intense in the future as they have been in the past. There is considerable uncertainty at present about the future of the Glastir agricultural support scheme for farms in areas classified as Less Favoured Areas, such as these uplands.
  • Changed farming systems – in particular the expansion in sheep numbers and the contraction or disappearance of other agricultural activities, especially cattle and pony grazing, with consequential implications for wildlife diversity. Following the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union the Welsh Government is about to propose a new system of farming subsidies, to be known as the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which will substantially change the economics of upland farms replacing payments for livestock with ‘public funds for public goods’.  It remains to be seen how this will affect the landscape of the Cambrian uplands.


High Nature Value Farming – Case Studies Wales

Farmers’ Union of Wales report: The Role of Grazing Animals and Agriculture in the Cambrian Mountains (2013)

NFU Cymru: A Vision for Welsh Upland Farming (2020)



Man’s presence in the Cambrian Mountains can be traced back at least 5000 years, and many of the paths and tracks in the Elan Valley are associated with Bronze Age cairns, standing stones and stone circles.

The Cambrian Mountains are also criss-crossed by roads engineered by the Romans, east-west and spinally north-south. These routes were defended at strategic locations by marching camps, of which nearly a dozen have been identified, thanks to the relatively low level of human disturbance of these uplands. Fresh discoveries continue to be made from the air.

Drovers’ routes across the Cambrian Mountains may have existed even before the Roman occupation.  The drovers were the men who drove livestock from one place to another, perhaps to market, perhaps to summer pastures. They drove cows, sheep, geese, turkeys, whatever needed to be moved. The herds could be up to 300 or even 400 strong.

The main drove routes across the Cambrian Mountains were:

  • Tregaron – Abergwesyn
  • Ponterwyd – Llangurig – Rhayader
  • Devil’s Bridge – Llangurig
  • Devil’s Bridge – Rhayader
  • Ffair Rhos – Rhayader
  • Strata Florida and then to join the Tregaron – Abergwesyn route
  • Pumsaint – Dolaucothi – Caeo – Cilycwm and then on to Llandovery
  • Llanddewi Brefi – Cilycwm and then on to Llandovery

These routes then connected together to take the stock across the border to Hereford in England.


Cowboy, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, the traditional droving breed. Photo courtesy of Wyntr Cardigans

The term “drover” was used for anyone taking livestock long distances; those who took the cattle on short journeys were simply cattle drivers. It was an important distinction for those concerned: the drovers revelled in their social standing as an important, charismatic and tough bunch of individuals.

Animals were transported along the ridgeway and valley routes of the Cambrian Mountains to markets in England. The routes would originally have developed to provide the quickest and easiest route over the mountains from the various collecting points, often using already existing tracks, subject to availability of overnight accommodation at farms & inns on the route. The early drovers’ roads in Wale are often characterised by sudden dog-leg turns to right or left, which could give protection from driving rain and sleet, very importantly for men who would spend all day in the open air.  Other cross-country routes evolved in the 18th century to avoid paying tolls when the Turnpike Trusts were set up.

Link: The Turnpike Roads of England and Wales

Many of the historic routes of the Cambrian Mountains have survived largely because of the remoteness of their setting, and the absence of intensive human activity, two of the important special qualities of the area.

These routes became increasingly important in the 18th and 19th centuries, until the coming of the railways replaced them as the best means to get stock to the distant markets.

Map of turnpike trusts in Mid and South Wales

Map of turnpike trusts in mid and south wales



Mining lead, copper and gold in the Cambrian Mountains can be traced back to the Romans, but lead mining peaked in the mid to late 19th century. Many of the mines were high in the hills, and paths became established which led from the villages to these mines.

With the exception of the museums at Llywernog (lead) and Dolaucothi (gold), the abandoned and often isolated metal mines of upland central Wales have been allowed to decay naturally, and are generally little more intrusive features in the landscape than are the ruins of lluestau (small earthen dwellings on a dry-stone or earthwork wall-base with an adjoining small earthwork enclosure, once occupied by shepherds). Like them they afford communion with a way of life that survived to living memory yet now seems much more remote. In particular, the many reservoirs and watercourses built to serve the mines are major achievements of Victorian, and in one case Roman, engineering, and add both human interest and biodiversity along their routes. Mining was widespread but sparsely distributed. With few exceptions the mines worked lead and zinc deposits of quite high grade in narrow lodes underground. Surface remains are thus seldom extensive. Pumping and crushing were water powered. Ore concentrates were exported via pack trail or rural roads. No smelting was done on-site.

Tips are thus small in comparison with those of the slate industry and essentially of the local rock; there are no slag heaps and no unsightly scars of opencast quarries. Loss of woodland in the region was largely due to agricultural pressure, not mining. The lead mines of Cwmystwyth are exceptional in the Cambrian Mountains for their enormous scale, accessibility, and age – the workings on Copa Hill are amongst the oldest in Europe.  The lodes are in alternating beds of hard gritstone and shales, in the Llandovery series of the Silurian period, which have been folded into synclines and anticlines.

These lodes were then displaced by the Ystwyth fault, which has isolated ore bodies and caused “soft ground”. There are over thirty lodes, but the principal ones are the Comet, which is between 12 and 40 feet wide and has been the most productive, and the Kingside, which was three feet wide.

They converged on Graifawr to produce a particularly rich ore-shoot, in places 60 feet wide.  The mine finally closed in 1940, and the remains are now managed by the Cambrian Mines Trust. With conservation and protection, the mines are an asset to a landscape, on which their impact has been surprisingly small, although what woods remained in the vicinity of Cwmystwyth when mining began were allegedly cut down and used for smelting.

There is much potential for education about, and interpretation of, the mining legacy. More information about the mines can be found in publications available locally, including Land of Lead (2021) by CMS Trustee Brian Davis, and from the Welsh Mines Society, which also organises field trips.

The Spirit of the Miners project from 2005-8 focussed on the history and legacy of the north Ceredigion mines, and its website contains a wealth of information and images.


Llywernog Mine – The Silver Mountain Experience    Dolaucothi Gold Mines

Cambrian Mines Trust    Welsh Mines Society

‘Spirit of the Miners’

Cwmystwyth Mine    Miners’ Bridge Pontrhydygroes