Farmer Stories

Sam Beaumont - Bringing horticulture to the Lake District

England
Case Study
uplands
horticulture
meadows
Livestock
soil health
wood pasture
mob grazing

All imagery: Joannes Coates © for the Nature Friendly Farming Network

The Lake District is one of England’s most treasured and best-known landscapes and has been shaped by agriculture for thousands of years. Right in the heart of the national park, on the shores of Ullswater, around 15 minutes from the town of Penrith, is Gowbarrow Hall Farm, which is run by Sam and Claire Beaumont.

Gowbarrow Hall Farm has hundreds of acres across a stunning landscape, which includes views of the lake and the iconic mountains, with Helvellyn visible from the farm when it is not wreathed in clouds. Gowbarrow Hall, which has been in Claire’s family since her grandfather bought it in the 1970s, includes 385 acres of grassland (including 80 acres of heather moorland right on the fell top), around 150 acres of older woodland and 160 acres of commercial plantation forestry.

Although Sam and Claire both have farming in their family backgrounds, they met while working at an engineering consultancy. When it became obvious that Gowbarrow Hall was in need of new leadership, they decided they wanted to live in the beautiful rural location and give farming a go. They took over in 2017, and Sam now describes their approach as “a hybrid between regenerative grazing and rewilding”.

Before the couple arrived, the farm had been let out to graziers for years, and the family was unhappy at how high artificial fertiliser inputs had gotten. Sam and Claire quickly started farming Swaledale sheep and mules, imitating the practices of her grandfather and his parents, respectively, but very quickly realised traditional agricultural models weren’t working for them.

We need a mindset change to step away from farms looking like manicured golf courses to rougher-looking grazing that is better for nature.

Sam Beaumont

“We only took half the farm back at first, but we still had a couple of hundred ewes,” Sam remembers. “The cost of the fertiliser and feed were making it uneconomic. We were also reading more and more about climate change and the biodiversity crisis, and it didn’t make sense to us to be feeding genetically modified soybeans from South America to sheep in Cumbria. We decided to stop doing that, but it took a few years to work out what we were going to do.”

Sam joined Pasture for Life as he was determined to maximise grass use and reduce the cost of feed. He was also aware fertilisers had affected the soil, compacting it rather than making it crumbly. Sam met regenerative agriculture consultant Caroline Grindrod and was inspired by regenerative farmers in America. Caroline helped him draw up a rotational grazing plan which aimed to restore wood pasture and native diverse pasture at Gowbarrow Hall.

Concern about inputs led to the biggest decision of all for Sam and Claire: replacing sheep with cattle. Starting with four heifers in 2018, the farm now has around 65 head of shorthorn cattle in summer and just under 60 in winter, with the couple planning to build up to around 100 head of cattle in the next few years. The cows spend April to November mob grazing the lower meadows of the farm, moving almost every day. They then spent the winter in the wood pasture, where they can stay out all year. They are joined in the wood pasture in winter by the farm’s Kune Kune pigs and the four fell ponies that spend the summer grazing the highest 80 acres of the site. The pigs only get supplementary feeding when they are having young, with the exception of apples taken from a neighbour’s orchard in winter.

The wood pasture, located between 800 and 900 feet above sea level, is not grazed at all in summer, making it a haven for nature, including butterflies and wildflowers. The lower levels of the farm are being converted back to traditional upland hay meadows, with rotational cutting employed and the cattle encouraged to graze to cut fossil fuel use. The animals also get bale grazing in March and April on hay that is in place from September in a dedicated field.

Sam says mob grazing and longer rest periods doubled plant species in the meadows within two years, while one field had 14 species per square metre in 2023. The farm is pushing for more, though, and has entered a Higher Tier Stewardship scheme. Four fields have been set aside to restore species-rich grassland, and 15,000 wildflower plugs have been planted. The wood pasture, which has been reduced to mainly alder, is being supplanted with a mix of 10,000 trees, including willow, hazel, aspen and oak.

“We need a mindset change to step away from farms looking like manicured golf courses to rougher-looking grazing that is better for nature. We’ve stopped calling our weeds "weeds"; we just refer to them by their plant names. Dock breaks up compaction layers in the soil and brings up minerals. Spiders build incredible webs between the stalks left over when the cattle move on. We don’t use any chemicals to control insects because we’re worried about killing spiders, which are our natural fly control."

“We have now got dung beetles back, which is really exciting because they are key to breaking down the manure and creating healthy soil. We’ve also seen on the legs of the dung beetle mites, which eat the larvae of the flies that cause mastitis and eye problems in cattle. This is a massive win and means the ecosystem is starting to recover from fertiliser and chemical use. We’re just trying to let nature come back to provide us with a healthy ecosystem.”

The farm has also been diversifying into fruit and vegetables, encouraged by a local volunteer. This started with four no-dig beds with cardboard topped with compost and woodchip for paths. Now they have a polytunnel with plans for a second and a particularly enthusiastic local customer. “There’s a campsite in the village with an outdoor pizza oven,” Sam explains. “We thought we would talk to them, and they said they would buy everything. We came up with a list of what they wanted us to grow, and we tried it.” Crops now include rocket, courgettes, cavolo nero, potatoes, onions and basil, with tomatoes in the polytunnel.  “It’s been a real eye-opener to what you can actually grow in Cumbria,” Sam says.

Sam and Claire also work with Caroline Grindrod and her organisation, Wilderculture CIC, to run courses helping other people make similar changes to their farms. A barn has been converted under the Farming in Protected Landscapes scheme to make a training venue with a kitchen and education room. The lunches are also a way of showcasing the farm’s produce, alongside the direct sales of beef and pork through boxes and customers visiting. Another income stream is from leather products made out of the hides when they get returned from the abattoir.

We’ve proved you can grow basil in the Lake District, so anything’s possible if you put your mind to it. I think the uplands are going to be ideal for things like agroforestry and silvopasture, integrating things like fruit into the mix. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Sam Beaumont

The farm’s regenerative approach has led to an increase in biodiversity, including orchids, barn owls and the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly. The farm is also home to a wildflower called the Grass of Parnassus, which Sam says is the county flower of Cumberland. Sam is extremely interested in continuing to develop his wood pasture and wants to increase his knowledge of both agroforestry and silvopasture. “I don’t like it when farming is seen as separate from nature,” he says. “I like integrated solutions."

“There’s a strong future for uplands farming, but it needs to change. Some areas are not being very well managed either for nature or for farming. Stopping using chemicals that are so degrading is going to provide a more resilient future. Then there needs to be more direct selling and more food being produced. We’ve proved you can grow basil in the Lake District, so anything’s possible if you put your mind to it. I think the uplands are going to be ideal for things like agroforestry and silvopasture, integrating things like fruit into the mix. It’s not all doom and gloom.”