Born to be wild

Categories: Behind the stalls, Features

Market Life visits Rhug Estate in north Wales, a place where an unusual calmness pervades, wild plants and insects thrive, and untameable bison rule the roost

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili

Today, the sunshine is dewy and scintillating in a manner you tend not to associate with north Wales—or indeed, any part of Wales. The roads are leaf-swept and winding. The surrounding hills, in their ambition to be mountains, have a Lord of the Rings quality to their bruised-purple scrubland and jutting crags. But the most striking thing about Rhug Estate—meat from which is sold at Borough Market—is not the scenery or even the sunshine, but the stillness. We’re standing in a field of bison, with highland cows to the left of us and lambs to the right, and the loudest noises we can detect come from the rustling of hedgerows, the peewit of lapwings, and the whispering of trees.

Okay, I’m exaggerating—but only slightly. As Lord Newborough says himself, the most important thing to notice here is how quiet the animals are. “The chickens are quiet. Even the turkeys are quiet. Kind of,” he smiles. The sheep and cattle are particularly tranquil. Lord Newborough recalls how, prior to the estate’s conversion to a particularly thoughtful and uninvasive form of organic farming, his flock of sheep would bleat almost constantly. “They were restless. They’d graze selectively. Now they graze across the field and are quiet and contented.” The pasture is better quality and much more varied, sprouting clover, herbs and flowers unseen in fields doused with chemical weed-killers—but the most significant change has been in how the animals are treated.

“Farming organically means not routinely drenching [administering drugs by mouth] or injecting the animals, and generally taking the stress out of their lives,” says Lord Newborough. “It means the best possible animal welfare.” Where the animals need to be handled—and they rarely do, spending most if not all of their lives outdoors—it is quietly, with every thought for their peace of mind and wellbeing.

“Since we’ve been organic I have lambed outside,” says Rhug’s head shepherd, John Dyke. “The ewes are perfectly capable of giving birth without interference. They select a corner, have their lambs there, and stay maybe for a day: I just go round checking everything’s alright with them.” Even the larger, more valuable animals—the aberdeen angus cattle and bison—calve outside in all but exceptional circumstances, being heritage breeds evolved over centuries to survive and thrive in northern European climes.

Rhug farm

Less stress, higher quality
Put simply, better welfare means less stress for the animal and a higher quality product. Ask any butcher at Borough Market who has spent time in less salubrious butcheries and they’ll regale you with stories of stress hormone-riddled meat. “It looks awful. You can see it,” one butcher told me. “It’s tough, it has a bad odour and it doesn’t settle.” This isn’t just about scrapping routine injections—though as Lord Newborough observes, “you can’t possibly round up animals every two weeks and inject them without stressing them”—it is about considering the welfare of the animal right up until its final moments, ensuring that even the process of slaughter is as stress-free and pain-free as possible.

“They have to be the first ones down the line at the abattoir. Those are the rules of organic. They can’t be hanging around in a pen with other stressed animals,” says Lord Newborough firmly. To be registered with the Soil Association, the regulatory body for organic farms, an abattoir must commit to slaughtering organic animals first thing. Rhug Estate goes one step further: by choosing a family-run abattoir on the edge of the estate, it minimises the travelling time of the animals. Indeed, in the case of bison and deer, they are shot in the field with a silenced rifle. It’s a far cry from the tens, even hundreds of miles traversed by most livestock to noisy abattoirs—but then, Rhug’s widely feted produce is a far cry from most meat. “The chefs who buy from us could source their meat from anywhere—anywhere in the world,” Lord Newborough says, “and they choose to buy Rhug meat.”

Rhug Estate is old. Centuries old. To be shown round by Lord Newborough is to merely scrape the surface of it. Lord Newborough’s family has resided in this corner of Denbeighshire since at least the 9th century. The manor he lives in was built in 1799; the parkland in which the Rhug deer roam dates from long before that and the burial mounds, one of which we pass on the way to the farm, are Bronze Age. There’s no shortage of heritage here. While Lord Newborough is grateful for this inheritance and all that it brings to Rhug’s reputation, it is marrying this history with the future that most interests him.

“I was born on this estate, brought up by my father to farm—then as soon as I could I went off and did everything other than farming,” Lord Newborough says, smiling. He ran an air charter company, travelled to Australia, ran an electronics business, then undertook a fishery protection scheme in Sierra Leone. “I came out of there when I was accused of mounting a coup. By that time my father was pretty old, so I came back to help him—and ensure I wasn’t disinherited!” he says.

Lord Newborough

Embracing the environment
While he’d eaten organic produce for years, it wasn’t until his father passed on in 1998 that the new Lord Newborough decided to put his money where his land was and bring organic farming to Rhug. “The first time in my life that I took a genuine interest in farming was when we converted to organic—because it is so much more challenging,” he enthuses. “You have to embrace what the environment has to offer.”

Where conventional farming is about intervention, organic farming, when done well, is all about prevention: understanding that the chicory that grows alongside the pasture will act as a natural wormer for sheep, or that the clover in the fields will trap nitrogen in the soil. “A lot of organic farming today draws on traditional practices. When we grow cereals for feed here, we also grow triticale, which establishes itself quickly. Its long stalks smother the weeds, so we don’t have to worry about weed killer. When it’s harvested we have something for straw, which we can use for bedding in winter time. Then, come summer, we can spread that straw out on the fields as fertiliser.”

It’s far from easy, but Lord Newborough only has to look to the satisfied staff and contented animals to feel he is doing the right thing. “I’m creating a farm that has a future,” he explains, surveying the bison whose interrogative eyes have (mercifully) strayed from ours back to their rich pasture. These were initially a publicity stunt: unable to ignore the presence of these large, alien creatures, more commonly associated with Canadian plains than the Welsh countryside, traffic passing the farm slowed down—to the point where more and more customers started visiting. “It worked so well I bought more. Everyone knows Rhug now because of the bison,” grins Lord Newborough. They’re the perfect promo material—but they are also one of Rhug’s most valued and popular sources of meat.

“Compared to cattle, bison are far more commercial. Like cows they calve every year, but they live up to 20 years longer.” And those heavy, hairy forequarters conceal a surprising amount of meat. “It’s hard to believe, but their bones are really light—almost featherweight,” Lord Newborough continues, “so the yield is far greater.” Though close to beef in appearance, bison meat is more like venison in its gaminess and nutritional profile: “It’s lower in fat than beef, and higher in vitamins and minerals. It’s very healthy. There’s a lot of demand for it.” It’s an attractive proposition for any livestock farmer looking for ways to improve their sustainability credentials without compromising their financial viability.


A quantum leap
This brings us back to organic farming, and its significance for the environment both locally and on an international level. Though a farmer by birth and a believer in meat by extension, Lord Newborough is by no means blind to the relationship between meat consumption and greenhouse gases. “It’s deadly serious. People don’t want to look into it, but one simply can’t carry on supporting intensive beef farming when we are seeing its consequences.” In Ecuador, vast swathes of land have been rendered infertile by changing weather conditions, he points out, while elsewhere in the world global warming is wreaking havoc in the form of droughts and hurricanes.

Reducing our meat consumption is all very well—and a Rhug bison burger is well worth holding out all week for—but the key, Lord Newborough says, is organic grassland. “Organic grassland traps the harmful CO2 into the ground, where artificial fertiliser does the opposite. What we need,” he continues, “is a quantum leap from intensive grain-fed beef farming to organic grass-fed beef.”

We move on from the bison. However open their pasture, these are irredeemably wild animals and they’re starting to lose patience with the photographer. “You can’t domesticate bison,” says Lord Newborough, as we march back to his Land Rover. “You can’t milk them, herd them or transport them to an abattoir. They don’t like being handled.” When its time comes—around 30 months, a good year or so beyond the age of a conventionally farmed bull—a bison bull will be shot in the field while his head is down, grazing. “The gun is silenced. The bison is unaware. In fact, it’s such a quiet and stress-free process, the rest of the herd just carry on feeding.” The same goes for his Japanese sika deer, the latest addition to the Rhug family and a favourite of Lord Newborough’s for their beauty, independence and highly flavoured meat.

Lord Newborough describes his sika deer as his ‘Brexit policy’. “I wanted to diversify into doing venison in order to cushion any downturn in the Welsh lamb market.” Rhug already has established markets for the fallow and roe deer which have roamed the estate for many years, but after consulting many chefs, Lord Newborough concluded that sika deer produced a more covetable meat. “The flavour is lighter—less intensely gamey than some venison—but it’s richly marbled, so it cooks beautifully. Chefs love it. With so much uncertainty around Brexit, I’m keen to really establish our reputation for venison”—not least, he continues, because its nutritional and sustainability credentials are making it ever more popular.


Flora and fauna
It’s been just nine short years since our host assumed the reins at Rhug Estate but to his late father, today’s organic farm would be almost unrecognisable. “We’ve planted thousands of trees, miles of hedgerows, and we’ve sectioned off areas to protect flora and fauna. It’s part of our duty toward future generations, but it’s also about reaping the benefits,” says Lord Newborough, who like many an organic farmer before him has observed how his livestock use hedgerows and trees to supplement their diets and shelter from the elements. “One of the most exciting things about farming organically is finding out what the environment has to offer us. If we grow grass strips around the edges of our crops, for example, we’re protected from aphid attacks because ladybirds fly out and eat them. If we graze cattle on the hills, that encourages insects, so the grouse population increases.”

The proliferation of hedgerows and woodland corridors has transformed Rhug’s populations of wild birds and insects. “The conservation projects we are currently funding and working on are trying to restore the number of endangered black grouse upon the Berwyn hills. Numbers of waders, curlews and lapwings will never manage to grow without habitat management and predator control,” says head gamekeeper David Pooler. What Rhug lacks in farmyard noise, it more than makes up for in warbles, calls and whistles—of birds and, every so often, of Lord Newborough summoning his gentle farm labrador, Truffles. “I think I know where he’s gone,” he sighs, as the sudden sound of squawking turkeys interrupts the stillness.