Wilder Pentwyn – building a new model farm
James Hitchcock, Chief Executive Officer, Radnorshire Wildlife Trust
In October 2021 Radnorshire Wildlife Trust (RWT) completed the purchase of a 164- acre farm, Pentwyn, at Llanbister Road, Powys. We took a £1,500,001 loan and are now working to repay this, while building a new approach to land management.
This is the largest land purchase the RWT has made for over 15 years and was a big decision for us as the UK’s smallest mainland Trust. And crucially, for Pentwyn we’ve created a 30-year vision for the future.
My background is in nature reserve and land management. I’ve worked for four Wildlife Trusts, working up through the ranks to join RWT as Chief Executive. I’ve been involved with buying land for nature for nearly 20 years. And I’ve worked with farmers throughout that – often through contract work and grazing agreements. But one thing that always strikes me is that even the largest nature reserves are somehow separate to the rest of the countryside.
Conservation organisations, and in lots of cases farmers, protect sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or those with similar value by managing them as standalone units. Something you do because you are bound to or hold a particular interest.
Sure, thinking has shifted to the importance of landscape scale management – joining up land so it is bigger, better, and more connected. But it’s almost 15 years since Sir John Lawton wrote these words and progress has been hard won. Examples exist of collaborative working, and there is funding for positive work. There are also plenty of examples of brilliant work by individual farms and estates. But it is not the norm.
The overriding economic model, which all of us have a stake in, is still geared up for maximum production of cheap food, with little thought for anything else. The countryside is trimmed, cleaned and kept short. But the wild things are where things grow long, and we have a media narrative that likes to pitch farming against nature conservation.
RWT strongly believes that farmers have a critical role to play in helping us minimise climate change and increase the abundance and diversity of nature in Wales. They will be well-placed to lead a transition to regenerative agriculture as the norm.
On the face of it, Pentwyn is a pretty average farm for mid Wales. And that is the point. Its history is sheep and beef (there’s only one dairy farm in Radnorshire) – 400 ewes grazing between the farm and the hill – and about 30 suckler cows, a herd wound down in the later years of the previous owner’s tenure. Thankfully Pentwyn escaped the rapid rise of the Industrial Livestock Unit that we’ve seen in Powys.
The farm hasn’t had much in the way of artificial fertiliser on it from what we know, and soil test data backs this up, but it has had some re-seeding and it has for some years been grazed all year round at a stocking level higher than previous generations would have recognised, meaning there is very little diversity of flower species in the sward. The hedges have been managed well, many are thick at the base and are fenced from stock – a legacy of support through Glastir. And there are two plantations of conifer. In mid Wales there is always conifer!
We’re doing this because we need to find a new way to scale up management for nature and show how this might be rolled out across Wales. We’re letting nature find a way at Pentwyn.
The landscape has become too tidy, managed by larger and more advanced machinery and larger and faster growing stock, with overall herd diversity decreased across most farms. We need scruffiness and disturbance back in the landscape; time and space for grassland to become scrub and then back again as large cattle, pigs and perhaps ponies or goats move through the farm at varying low densities, off-and-on (pulse grazing) over time.
Pentwyn is a farm where nature is the lead crop. There will be cover for shelter and nesting. And food – seeds and insects for birds, and grass and flowers providing nectar and pollen and caterpillar and larval food. This cover won’t be removed over winter either. Wildlife, especially insects on annual lifecycles, need continuity of cover and structure: warm short turf, cooling long grass, or areas out the wind.
We initially discussed undertaking regenerative farming, bringing back heritage grains and feed crops, but opted instead for extensive land management, using low numbers of hardy native cattle and pigs. Large livestock are effectively proxies for long lost wild animals such as Wild Boar or Aurochs. Nature hates a vacuum and adores opportunity. So, we need to create the conditions for this to happen. Not prescriptive management for a set number of orchids on a field-by-field basis, but an overall driver to create space for nature and then to let it happen.
We are going to introduce a market garden and mix this in with some initial habitat restoration – wetlands, ponds, and broad-leaved woodland.
Across Wales we see the ideal land use for future as nature-led and regenerative mixed in with far greater coverage of broadleaved woodland, agro-ecological production, market gardening and continuous cover forestry. Pentwyn offers the nature-led model.
Just 1% of UK land is put down to market gardening. Increasing small scale, local production, via short-supply chains increases food security, while allowing producers to be price makers and not takers. Small-scale organic market gardens are one of the highest yielding forms of agriculture there is and one of the most wildlife rich.
We initially employed a local farmer, Sarah James, who had great ties with the surrounding families and helped us build our story. Now we’ve got a new Head of Reserves and Land Management in place – a new permanent role, which will help RWT deliver its ambitious strategy.
We’ve entered a partnership with a grazier and have eight Belted Galloways on site, using ‘no-fence’ collars to help protect key features – which will in time have benefits for Cnwch and we hope, the wider common.
We’ve gained political support for our vision from local to national level, capped by a visit from Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths.
We’ve taken a risk, a risk with a large loan for such a small charity, and a risk with a new land use model and new way of working for a Wildlife Trust – leasing land for market gardening is not usually our domain – but we want to demonstrate how we can make space for nature while producing food on a relatively small holding. It would have been easier to buy an existing SSSI or nature rich site, or to try and emulate regenerative farming with a farm business tenant. But leadership requires people to choose the path less trodden.
Radnorshire Wildlife Trust wants Pentwyn to become a Wilder Pentwyn, but we also want it to be a farm. A new model farm for the future. With high welfare, low input meat being produced from the stock and vegetables and maybe fruit and nuts produced from the market gardening business, which will have provided an opportunity for a new entrant to farming.
Most of all we want to see nature increase on the land, draw people in, give them a sense of well-being, moments of wonder and hope. Hope for all our futures.
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