The international rugby referee discusses staying close to his roots and the challenges of farming
Rugby referee Nigel Owens on his rustic roots and the challenges of farming.
I’m an only child, born and raised in the
Welsh village of Mynyddcerrig in the Gwendraeth valley, Carmarthenshire. The name translates as Mountain of Stone – it’s in the middle of a quarry and coal-mining area. The village’s limestone quarry, where most people worked, is still operating. Beyond the Gwendraeth Fach river are the agricultural and dairy farms.
Growing up, my parents and I lived with
my paternal grandparents for five years on an eight-acre smallholding, keeping horses. My dad was one of seven and my grandfather worked down the mines. We kept a couple of cows for our own milk, some pigs and sheep. When I was five, we got a council house on an estate in the same village and I lived there with my parents until 14 years ago. My dad is 82, fit as a fiddle, still lives there, but mum passed away nine years ago from cancer.
I love the area so much I’ve only moved a
mile to the next village. I’d have stayed in the same village if a house had been available to buy. I love the morning view from my window. I’m at the end of a little lane surrounded by fields with a river running through them, and beyond is the park with the rugby, cricket and football pitch.
You’re never too old to be told off by your
parents! I’m 47 and dad still watches all the matches where I referee and comes to the local ones. He’s my biggest critic! The only time he won’t watch a game is if it’s on Friday, at 7pm, because he’d never miss the bingo.
I loved living in such a rural area. We were surrounded by fields and woodland. I’d go hunting and ferreting with my father. I was always out, climbing trees or exploring. My dad and uncle bought me a fishing rod for my eighth birthday. We had good trout fishing nearby, but I haven’t been for years now. There was a farm behind the house and every Saturday from aged nine, I’d help out.
“It’s difficult to get into farming unless you’re a farmer’s son or you marry into it”
In the summer, I would go to stay on my uncle’s farm. I wanted to be a farmer and when I left school at 16, I joined the Young Farmers Club, and worked on the Y Wern dairy farm in Drefach. I was President of the Wales Federation of Young Farmers Clubs for five years until 2014.
I went to agricultural college while working on a farm for several years before becoming a full-time referee in 2001. I was back on the farm last summer, helping with big baling. I’d have loved to have gone into farming, but it’s very difficult to get into unless you’re the son of the farm or you marry into a farming family. It’s not like you can just go and pick one because there aren’t many rentable farms any more.
Where and how you’re brought up has a
huge influence on you as a person. I was taught manners and to respect people by my parents. In a tight-knit community, you’re not anonymous and neither is your behaviour.
The rural/urban divide is very real. Lots of people in the city say they could never live in the countryside and rural people think the same in return. I feel very strongly that people in government shouldn’t vote on things they know nothing about. The countryside is a way of life and you have to really understand it to know what’s best for it.
We also need to encourage more people to use the countryside, respectfully and
sustainably. In west Wales, we have places such as Folly Farm, which kids can visit. It’s such a shame that some inner-city kids don’t experience the outdoors beyond what they see on TV. If more people saw or knew the provenance of things, such as the milk in their cereal, it would improve awareness.
I miss my dogs. I had two German Shepherds that I loved walking in the countryside and down coastal paths. They were only eight and 10 when they passed. I won’t get any more until I’m done travelling.
The Mind Your Head campaign, which raises awareness of mental health issues among farmers, is hugely important to me. I suffered from mental health issues years ago and was in a dark place, thinking about suicide. Farmers are suffering from an increasing level of depression in the industry. The ONS says one farmer per week is committing suicide. We need to make it more socially acceptable to talk about. It’s a sign of strength, asking for help, rather than bottling it all up.