PEMBROKESHIRE farmer Gerald Miles spent 20 years on an odyssey to re-discover the ancient native Welsh grains he remembered his grandfather growing on their land.They were called ‘ceirch du bach’ which translates as ‘small black oats’.

Having inherited Caerhys farm – which overlooks Abereiddy, near St Davids – from his father, he hadn’t seen the grains available anywhere and their loss was something that bothered Gerald.

He asked around at local marts, tried to spread the word, put posters up and even paid for a few advertisements in the Farmers’ Weekly.

“My father and grandfather would grow the ceirch du bach to give to our cattle and horses,” the seventy-two year old recalls.

“They’d also grow it alongside barley and we called this combination ‘shiprys’, which is a word you barely hear spoken these days. It was very healthy for the animals and gave them a tremendous amount of energy.

“I had fond memories of these grains as someone who loves the land. I did my best to try to find someone else growing them or selling them, but the truth is that I had almost given up hope of ever discovering them.”

The National Wales: The Ceirch du bach grains. Photo: Andy PilsburyThe Ceirch du bach grains. Photo: Andy Pilsbury

An organic farmer, Gerald had joined the Landworkers’ Alliance, which is a union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers who have a mission of wanting to create a better food and land-use system.

It was at a Landworkers’ Alliance meeting that he bumped into the critically-acclaimed Ceredigion musician and grower, Owen Shiers.

Owen was on his own separate quest to re-discover the lost folk music of West Wales, in particular the Clettwr Valley, where he was born and raised, near Llandysul.

“I had been given a Finzi Trust scholarship and had decided to concentrate my efforts on our own native Welsh folk music,” says Shiers.

“By going through historical books, listening to the recordings which are held at St Fagan’s and talking to people, I had built up a picture of how life was years ago. It made me realise how deeply connected this music was to the land and our agricultural heritage.”

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During his research, Owen was introduced to local farmer, Iwan Evans, who still farmed in the traditional way at his Coed Fardre farm in Talgarreg, near Llandysul.

“I’d go over to Iwan’s for a chat and I’d get a lot of local history from him,” explains Owen. “He had a treasure trove of stories and folk songs, which he hadn’t even realised. But I saw the value in what he had and I wanted to preserve it.”

When Owen and Gerald met, and Gerald had shared the story about his mission to find the ceirch du bach, the penny dropped; Owen realised that Iwan was still growing them. He immediately organised a meeting between Gerald and Iwan.

The National Wales: Owen Shires. Photo: Andy PilsburyOwen Shires. Photo: Andy Pilsbury

“Finding these grains again was like striking gold to me. It was overwhelming,” says Gerald. “Iwan is a right character.

“It’s so important to cherish people like him in order to learn from what they know. And Iwan thinks the same as me, that the old seeds are vital to us now due to climate change and how conditions have altered.

It's believed that Iwan Evans (78) was the very last person in Wales to be growing ceirch du bach. He puts the demise of the oats down to the advent of new agricultural technologies.

“Until the end of the 1960s, oats were cut with a reaper-binder, as had been done for the 40 years previously,” says Evans.

“Then came the combine harvesters. The ceirch du bach were too long to go through the machine and were a real hassle so that’s why the age of the oats came to an end.

“After that there were only a few people here growing them, maybe two or three farms in this whole area In the end, it turned out that I was the only one left.”

The last century has seen a remarkable shift in the way in which land is farmed, particularly the period after the Second World War. Mixed traditional farms of crops, animals, orchards and woodlands began to disappear bit by bit in favour of agricultural specialism; intensive, industrial farming rose.

At the time, technological developments designed to help farmers grow more crops and work more quickly were understandably welcomed with open arms.

However, the side effect of that was that the ancient grains which had adapted over centuries to the Welsh climate and soil were ditched, and their genetic diversity was lost in a flash.

The National Wales: Iwan Evans and Twm Photo: Andy PilsburyIwan Evans and Twm Photo: Andy Pilsbury

Owen sees the parallels between his own musical research rediscovering lost Welsh folk songs and the rediscovery of the ‘ceirch du bach’.

“These things are not disconnected from one another. The loss of the Welsh language, the way of life, the grains and the loss of species in nature… all these things are related,” he says.

“I see language and culture as a metaphor. If the language and the culture are the seeds, you need soil for them to grow, and so the way that people exist with one another on the soil becomes vital.

“What we have experienced is a case of cultural amnesia on many levels.”

Owen, Gerald and Iwan alongside other growers and grain enthusiasts have now formed a group called Llafur Ni (Our Grains).

Their purpose is to revive the old, indigenous ways of growing and harvesting traditional Welsh grains. Until around three years ago, those seeds existed only in genetic banks because they had disappeared from Wales completely.

“Thanks to Iwan, Owen and Llafur Ni, I’m now growing 20 acres of ceirch du bach on my farm, and several other ancient types of grain too,” says Gerald.

“I’m very passionate about keeping hold of these old varieties. Our aim is to share these seeds and to increase the amount of farms growing them throughout the land. I hear people saying all the time that you can’t grow food in Wales but I disagree.

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“If I can grow vegetables and grains on the side of the ocean then anyone in Wales can. You just have to find the right varieties for the soil and conditions. We had those throughout history but we let them go.

“In the past, I gravitated towards intensification but I changed my ways and having small, sustainable units is the only sensible way forward in my view.

“Look at the way farming is today where soya is imported from South America. We must change. We must grow our own food and sell it locally. The coronavirus has been a warning to us from nature and I believe living more sustainably must be our response.”

Owen Shiers would like to hear from anyone growing heritage Welsh grains. He can be contacted at owen@gemtone.co.uk