Clinging to the side of an exposed windswept coastal estuary, the plants and animals of Village Farm are now flourishing thanks to the hard work and dedication of two former BBC film makers. In 2014, Rebecca and her business partner Tim Green took over the tenancy of Village Farm, a seventy-hectare (one hundred and seventy-two-acre) unit in the small coastal village of East Portlemouth. The last three years have been a monumental task turning around a farm that has been overworked and under-loved, but the pair have relished the challenge and brought a beautiful part of the world to life once again.
It’s Rebecca who heads up the path to meet us; she has agreed to our visit despite a heart-breaking event that happened earlier in the year. Tim, the other half of Village Farm tragically lost his life in a tractor accident. As we acknowledge the loss of such an important person, Rebecca says, “I find it desperately sad that now we’re getting recognition for what we are doing, Tim has been taken, but I’d love to show you around and you can see what we’ve been up to.”
Rebecca grew up as a farmer’s daughter and her mother was a botanist. She was surrounded by people who loved wildlife from an early age. She ended up working as a BBC wildlife camerawoman for Sir David Attenborough for about twelve years travelling the world. It was here she met her best friend Tim; they worked together from around 2000. Tim studied zoology at Bristol University before starting his career at the BBC. Rebecca says, “It was the perfect mix: I was the farmer and Tim was the zoologist, we wanted to farm with nature and that became our focus.”
The pair left the BBC and after a short period farming a small holding, they took on the lease at Village Farm. Rebecca recalls, “The land was a mess, it had been over-farmed and completely void of any minerals or goodness. The soil was hard, dry and misused, it had been farmed by contractors who had just robbed the land of everything.” The pair knew if they could make a go of it here, they could make a go of it anywhere.
As we walk around the farm, we quickly appreciate lack of shelter, the stupidly steep hills and the sheer vulnerability to the elements, but the views are just stunning. We stand and admire the panoramic vista in front of us; the green fields run down to the estuary below which meanders its way inland. Rebecca smiles and says, “It may have seemed like an impossible task at the time and a crazy farm to choose as our first, but it was ours and we had the chance to change it.”
The first move was to re-seed all the arable land with a herbal lay to get as much diversity back as possible. Next, they planted trees, lots of trees, sixteen thousand to date. The trees are multi-purpose, they act as shelter, as food for the animals, as fuel, they slow the rain water, create bio-diversity and build the wildlife. At one point they were each planting between five hundred and seven hundred in an afternoon. Rebecca recalls, “You can’t walk afterwards but it’s a really mindful thing to do. It’s also an amazing way to change the landscape; it only takes seconds to do but these trees can last decades.”
We stand in a field over looking the houses of Salcombe just across the estuary; the birds are dancing in the air above our heads, landing in bushes and calling out from the tree’s lining the fields. The first year, Rebecca says, they had skylarks coming back to nest, they’ve seen rare sail buntings, snipe in the winter, curlew, swifts, swallows and house martins. In the summer, the farm is now a junction for migrating birds, “We have flocks of gold and green finches, five hundred at a time, buttons and linnets all landing here. In the spring, we have a super rare hawk. I’ve often stood here early in the morning and become transfixed by a merlin hunting a skylark.” They’ve also witnessed a huge rise in insects, butterflies, hares, a healthy badger population and many more species that have been allowed to flourish once again. She says, “The drive to keep on improving nature will never leave, it’s here in my heart, it’s in my head. It’s also what Tim wanted, it gives me joy so I’ll keep on doing it.”
As well as improving the land, the main activity on the farm is mutton. They have a special breed of sheep that’s bred for its location and also for taste, it’s called the South Devon short tail. The sheep are mob-grazed with a handful of goats and pigs. The flock of six hundred-plus sheep is given a new piece of pasture to eat every day and they don’t come back to a specific patch of land for at least four months. This gives the pasture time to recover, simultaneously creating new topsoil and organic matter. Moving the ‘mob’ everyday means they are never fed anything apart from what is on the land. It also allows Rebecca to read the land, “One part of the field may get battered with wind so we know to plant more trees, another may be boggier so we can then dig some ponds. We were basically putting the land back to what it was best at before the farming destroyed it. Our way of farming works with nature.”
The animals are then sold for breeding stock or for meat to restaurants and people who want pasture-fed organic, incredibly tasty (we tried it!) meat. They are producing nourishing, healthy, high-welfare food with one hundred per cent traceability while simultaneously creating a haven for wildlife. Because the meats are fed from the land all year round, the taste can be slightly different from season to season. Rebecca says, “We really notice it in the winter after the storms when the land is covered in salt whipped up from the sea, the meat actually tastes a lot sweeter.” The fleeces are also sold on to local spinners so every part of the sheep is used.
Nearing the end of our stroll around the farm, we head over to see the bees. They are an integral part of the farm as they are the main pollinators. We meet Emily Reed who looks after them in the apiary which is also open to the elements. Each hive is ratcheted down because of the coasterly gusts: this is extreme bee-keeping for sure. There are lots of wild flowers growing around the hives and also water butts so the bees are always well fed and hydrated. She is fully suited up and removes her hood to talk to us, “The bees pollinate the flowers and fruit trees all over the farm and because the plants are well pollinated, the animals get better nutrients from what they eat.”
Emily calls the bees ‘her flock’ and she looks after them in a very similar way to Rebecca’s sheep, by mimicking nature where possible. The hives are super insulated so the bees don’t have to overwork to stay warm. They are also designed to replicate the inside of a tree log where bees would naturally create a colony. At the bottom of each hive are rotten branches which contain lots of insects that become the clean-up crew, the insects eat mites on the bees and any other nasties that would hinder the production of the hive.
Traditional farming is set up to take as much from the land that is economically and physically viable. Rebecca’s way of farming is to bring wildlife back, let nature flourish and produce high welfare food. As we walk around the farm, experience the abundant wildlife and appreciate the stunning views, it’s hard to imagine a better way of earning a living from the land. These farming techniques are based on old traditional ways, but they feel like a blue print for the future, allowing nature and farming to flourish.