Last weekend, Odin and I visited Cefn Garthenor, a farm in South Wales, owned by our mentor Alistair Hughes who runs Savoir Beds. The farm, situated in South Wales, spans 210 acres and comprises 67 fields. On the farm, you will find Alistair’s home, a house built in the 1700s from stone and mud with a slate roof.
The farm was purchased two years ago and is undergoing a long-term rewilding project. Alistair has taken on this challenge due to its crucial benefits and the potential for lasting impact. With such an ambitious project, we can safely say that he will be very busy for many years.
What is rewilding? Rewilding is an ecological restoration strategy aimed at reinstating natural processes and habitats through the introduction of native species. This allows once-doomed ecosystems to regain balance and biodiversity. It fosters self-sustaining environments and mitigates the impact of human intervention on landscapes too. However, rather than simply letting the land thrive entirely on its own, rewilding on this sub-landscape scales requires some interventions to encourage this to happen more rapidly, with the caveat that, where possible, it's usually best to let nature do its thing.
Rewilding is important because modern industrial farming has depleted the environment to such an extent that the soil health of the UK and many other developed countries has been considerably reduced since the Industrial Revolution. UK soils have lost an estimated 84% of their carbon content since the late 19th century. Poor soil health affects our food production security, reduces biodiversity, and harms natural barriers, like flood defences. Unhealthy soil is adding to the Climate Emergency and revitalising it will massively reduce the effects.
In the United Kingdom, farmers have been historically subsidized on the area of 'farmable', and they will tend to maximise their output without much care for the nature. This pursuit of maximum production output on a constrained acreage has resulted in a very depleted environment. Alistair believes that farmers should instead be encouraged to meet environmental standards to earn subsidies. He believes that the way out of this mess is to financially incentivize farmers to rewild and consider the environmental impact much more. After Brexit, this was the stated government goal, but this is currently being massively watered down.
An example of the the problem with the current system lies at the bottom of a field where an Aspen tree has created hundreds of suckers, a forest of now 2m high trees growing from the roots of the original over an area of hundred square metres. Regular farmers are discouraged from keeping these as it reduces farmable land and thus their subsidy. However, Alistair believes the that these natrually regenerating trees should be encouraged and that steps should be taken to reward farmers who protect growths like these aspen suckers. His recommended intervention would be to fence off the shoots for a number of years to give them a chance to prosper.
The left image shows the Aspen tree and on the right are the suckers (shoots that have root sprouted from it).
Across the farm, you will find two species of farm animals that roam about and create three-dimensionality in the ground. Fourteen Galloway Cattle graze together and naturally nourish themselves on the undergrowth. Since they visit different fields with different plant life, they naturally spread their droppings, germinating seeds and fertilizing the land. The variety of food they eat also makes the cows healthier. Alistair explained that historically there would even be medicine fields where poorly animals would be taken to graze to receive other nutrients too... Think of a cown on a spa day.
The other animals you will find roaming Garthenor include two hardy Tamworth pigs, named Cagney and Lacey. They drive their snouts into the ground and turn over the land, naturally ploughing it and creating all-important three-dimensionality. We were astounded by the impact the two pigs make on the land, with many ditches and mounds dug and built by the mother and daughter pair.
Peanut was the most confident and curious of the hardy Galloway Calves
The farm is home to a host of other organisms too, including mammals like polecats, badgers, and water voles. Birds like tawny owls, kites, and herons. Insects including the Oxbow diving Beetle, Whorld Snail, and one of the rarest butterflies in Europe called the Marsh Fritillary Butterfly.
Another aspect of Allistiar’s plans is to reintroduce Beavers to the land in a large enclosure. here are some bureaucratic hurdles to cross before this can done , but it is na exciting prospect. Beavers were once native to the United Kingdom but were driven to extinction by hunting. Alistair describes how Beavers are ecosystem engineers: architects and builders of dams that instigate different ecosystems to exist. They are said to have a high cascade impact because of their industry and hard work makes homes for so much else, but we especially like them because we think they would enjoy a Høvel or Stria on their architectural drawing desk.
The trip was mostly educational, but we did lug about some dumped rubbish, including the bottom chassis of a car, and we repaired a few of Alistair’s tools, including a short training course from Odin on sharpening chainsaw teeth. For lunch, I made Rarebit (not rabbit), a traditional Welsh dish that is essentially ‘posh’ cheese on toast. Beer, flour, butter, mustard powder, Worcestershire Sauce, and most importantly, Welsh Cheddar, are whisked together over heat. Once in a thick paste, it is spread over slightly toasted bread and then grilled. It’s a perfect reward for a laboring farm hand or a hungover Sunday brunch.
As someone who was born in London and never visited a farm, I am incredibly disconnected from where my food comes from. The weekend started to shed a little light on this significant topic, and I look forward to going back to lend a hand in Spring.
Welsh Rarebit... delicious!