National Botanic Garden of Wales farm leads the way in conservation and food production – Wales247

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Set within 400 acres of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve just outside of Carmarthen you can find a mosaic of flower-rich meadows, spectacular woodlands, waterfalls and cascades – and Pantwgan farm. The organic farm is part of the National Botanic Garden of Wales and is run under the watchful eye of lead farm manager Huw Jones. Looking after the environment, maintaining biodiverse habitats and producing food are of critical importance.
Here Huw looks after traditional breeds of Welsh Black Cattle and Balwen sheep. Describing the role they play in managing the habitats and nature reserve he says: “They’re really key to what we do here. We farm for biodiversity, that’s the reason we’re here. But farming for biodiversity you have to have livestock, the two are inextricably linked.”
Not intense in livestock numbers with just 70 head of cattle during the summer and 60 breeding ewes, the farm has been organic for the last 21 years. With limited housing for the sheep and cattle, Huw uses the small herd and flock to its full potential on the 360 acres of permanent grassland.
“A lot of people will see the acreage we have versus the stocking levels and will think that it’s wildly understocked, and that might be true. But without the sheep and the cattle and the targeted grazing that they do you we would not have this landscape. Without those animals grazing – managing the grassland as they do we simply wouldn’t have the diverse landscape that we have,” adds Huw.
The farm was established in 1998, when the National Botanic Garden took over the lease of the land. The core missions of the garden from the outset were biodiversity, education and conservation. “We needed the farmland to deliver those missions. So, the farm got established very early on in the first years and from there on we’ve worked towards conservation, biodiversity education,” he explains.
Before starting his full-time farming career, Huw went to agricultural college. However, with little money in farming, there was not enough work to keep him on his parents 90 acre holding after graduating. “There wasn’t any work around at the local farms so I went to work in a factory just a few miles down the road. It was meant to be a short stop gap, but I spent four years there, it wasn’t for me. I wanted to farm. This job happened to come along at the same time that I left the factory and I jumped at the chance. I haven’t looked back,” says Huw. 17 years later he hasn’t looked back, taking great pride in the work that is being done on the land at Pantwgan farm.
“It’s really good here. We established the National Nature Reserve (NNR) back in 2008. We wanted it to be a SSSI to start off with but at that time we didn’t have the amount of species that were needed. It turned out to be a really good thing because the restrictions that come with SSSI status are really quite stringent and we got the National Nature Reserve status in 2008,” says Huw.
Keeping the NNR going and flourishing is the focal point of the work that is being done here but none of this would happen without the livestock, as they’re being used for targeted grazing. “What is nice here is that we have plenty of flexibility in trying out new things. We can pretty much have a stab at whatever we want and we try out projects on a small scale,” explains Huw.
An added benefit of being so closely linked to the National Botanic Garden is that the farm can draw on educational resources and reciprocally help educate visitors about the work that is being done here. “We can call the garden staff in for the educational side here and we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got the visitors who come to explore the grounds. It’s a positive way of engaging with our consumers and showing them how farming here helps the environment and biodiversity flourish,” says Huw.
Another benefit of the Natural Nature Reserve and the way it is managed through grazing practices are the varying types of Waxcaps which now call these fields their home.
“We have recorded over 40 different types of grassland fungi on one of our fields, 10 of which have the same international conservation status as the snow leopard, polar bear, European bison and Sumatran orangutan.
“These internationally rare Waxcaps have really started to spread across the site since we started managing the farm in an organic way and through the structured grazing that we do,” says Huw.
To further maintain and enhance biodiversity, the land doesn’t get ploughed and is kept as permanent pasture. In addition, wildflower meadows have also made a big comeback, now taking in 40 acres. And there is more to the wildflower meadows than meets the eye. Huw explains: “We’re actually doing some quite interesting DNA research here, looking at the soil life on our meadows versus nature reserves and more intensive grassland elsewhere in Wales. We’re hoping to understand more fully how our less intensive farming benefits the biodiversity below our feet and creates a more resilient farming ecosystem.
“There is also growing interest in how hay meadows or permanent pasture has a better root structure and helps to lock carbon in the soil. It’s almost like an underground forest.
“Obviously if you are growing trees at some point you are going to cut those trees down which releases a lot of carbon that’s been stored. Whereas if you’ve got this permanent pasture that’s managed by livestock it’s captured there permanently. That is a lot better for the environment longer term. If everybody managed the pasture and the grassland that way we’d have a much better future, I think.”
In addition, conservation volunteers monitor the species diversity of the meadows. “Our volunteers do a lot of work looking at the meadows, writing down what different species or new species we have in there. Over the years on one of our hay meadows we started with very few species of orchid then over the years we ended up with over 1000 orchids in one field,” says Huw.
The work on the hay meadows doesn’t stop there and a lot of research has gone into making green hay and the farm is now making a good profit from selling wildflower seed to the likes of the National Trust, landscape architects and people who manage roadside verges.
Explaining the process, Huw says: “If we want to target a particular species of flower – say yellow rattle for instance which is really good – it thrives off grassland. It’s like a parasite that helps to revert back to the hay meadows. We’ll cut that in September with an agricultural mower, then collect it with a sided forage wagon and take it to the area where we want to create a new meadow.
“We’ll get a rear discharge muck spreader and then we’ll spread that across the grassland. Then we start treating that particular field like a hay meadow, so basically, we don’t stock graze it from the end of April.
“We allow the flowers to grow, do their thing, drop their seed. Then we’ll either graze it or we’ll cut and collect it because what you want to do is deplete the nutrients as much as we possibly can on that field and then just let nature take its course.
“After about two or three years you’ll see yellow rattle coming in. That’ll really explode, as it feeds off all the more vigorous grasses. Then in time all the other species will start coming in as those tall grasses have gone and the landscape is more open for them to grow.
“We have a lot of people and other organisations interested in this and it’s becoming a source of income that we never had on the farm before. They want to buy the seeds and we’re able to sell them. It’s a really exciting little avenue.”
Being set predominantly in a park, Huw sees the benefits of trees, and is keen to increase the amount of carbon captured on farm. He says: “Planting trees is not a no-no at all. We’re constantly planting hedgerows and there is a fair bit of specimen tree planting going on here too. We’re not saying that planting trees is a bad thing. It’s just that the research is leaning towards permanent pasture capturing more carbon than trees. So it has to be the right tree in the right place.”
With all the work that is being done on the farm, sustainability is key. However, Huw feels there is more they can do here to improve their sustainability credentials. “We’re nowhere near as sustainable as I’d like to be. We obviously still have diesel powered equipment and we’re not using solar and wind as much as I’d like to. That’s something we’re looking into and hopefully there will be a change in infrastructure,” he says.
It is however not all about conservation here on the farm. Sustainable food production is just as important to Huw. “We like to keep everything as local as we can. Cutting food miles down is a big thing for me. We had a direct meat box scheme before Covid came, which worked so well. Unfortunately it came to a bit of a halt here but I’d like to get that going again.
“Obviously that also gives us another connection to our customers and visitors. Selling the meat here directly from the farm, through the Botanic Garden is ideal for that relationship. People can see where food is produced as they walk around.”
The farm is in the unique position that visitors have direct access to the grounds and can see the livestock for themselves. This, Huw believes, is important for people’s perception of the industry. “We change so many people’s perceptions about agriculture, farming and how it works in terms of biodiversity and how the two are linked together.
“We get a lot of sceptical people coming here and they spend half an hour or an hour meeting a lamb, meeting a sheep and learning about how those benefit biodiversity. When they go from here, they have a totally different understanding of agriculture and how it fits in with the environment.”
A side product on the farm that Huw is keen to find further use for is the wool of the Balwen sheep. It is currently only being used in the Botanic Garden to put around plants as a natural slug repellent, but he hopes it might be used for making clothes and rugs. “Because the Balwens have a black fleece, the Wool Board won’t take it and certainly won’t pay us for it. It becomes almost a waste product for us unfortunately.
“We’ve tried in vain to find people to help us out with spinning and turning it into rugs, jumpers, throws anything so we can sell it in the shop or the website. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find anyone so we’re currently only using it in the main garden. It does have a use that way but we’d like to find a way to transform it into a usable product so people can use wool – pure wool – rather than buying synthetic stuff.”
The future of Pantwgan farm is one Huw is excited about. He says: “The future of the farm is exciting. We have so many opportunities here to trial things, look at the science and work out how we can feed an ever growing population in a sustainable way. We have to find a balance between conservation and feeding people and I’m excited to be part of finding solutions to that problem.”

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