Welsh Blacks, with their distinctive white horns, are supremely adaptable. Their thick coats protect them against wind and rain, yet in summer these sleek right down. The animals can withstand extreme cold, yet their black pigmentation enables them to cope in the heat, too. They have thick hides to ward off snow, insects and sunburn, while life on the rocky mountains of Wales has given them stout, tough hooves less prone to injury. All attributes which anchor them in the landscape.
‘We think the world of these cattle,’ says Gwenfair Jones, 72, the family matriarch at Hafod yr Esgob Isaf. For decades her father, Ned, and uncle Gwilym developed the family’s Welsh Blacks into a herd synonymous with quality. Ned did so despite losing a leg, aged 26, in an overly ambitious attempt to deliver milk churns on his moped. Not that he made any concessions to his disability, other than struggling to perch on the low stool a local carpenter made for daily milking duties. Often it was left to the women to hand milk the Welsh Blacks, which, until recently, were very much a dual-purpose breed. Gwenfair joined the roster in 1951, aged just four, her sister Gaenor already a veteran. The girls milked three cows each, breath frosting in the early morning air as they chatted in Welsh, or lighting lanterns for afternoon milkings when winter nights drew in.
‘Afterwards the cows would walk down to the Afon Mynach to drink,’ says Gwenfair. ‘They’d done it so many times, each cow family had their own trail to the river.’ At the head of the lane which runs from Hafod yr Esgob Isaf farmhouse stand two Scots pine trees. These, it is believed, were planted by the family’s forebears for the cattle drovers who once criss-crossed Wales. Rather like a hotel sign, the trees’ distinctive profile signposted drovers to nearby shelter. These were the men who, for hundreds of years, shepherded huge herds of cattle, sheep and geese from Wales to the big cities in England, where the demand for meat was insatiable. By 1810 more than 14,000 cattle were being exported from the island of Anglesey alone. Cows would form a dark, seething mass as they swam across the Menai Straits before being marched through Snowdonia’s mountains en route to England. Modern infrastructure in Wales, from roads to banking, was in part shaped by the drovers. As well as carrying messages, they returned from long journeys with bags of money from their trades, making them easy pickings for brigands such as the notorious Red Bandits of Mawddwy. To mitigate the risk, banks were set up on farms. Until recently, one remained at Hafod yr Esgob Isaf, across the road from the Scots pines. The stone building, Banc y Foty, was later converted to a cattle shed.