Nestled against the stunning backdrop of Cardigan Bay lies Esgair Arth, which loosely translates to Bear Ridge. This 300-acre coastal farm sits just four miles from the picturesque seaside town of Aberaeron. A wonderfully unique town home to a charming pastel-coloured collection of regency-style houses the colours of which historically mirrored the fishing boat of their owners.
“Aberaeron is a place with special meaning to my family, an incredible print from the brilliant local artist Rhiannon Roberts hangs in our home. Therefore, when we saw Esgair Arth advertised we quickly prioritised a visit. On one of the hottest days of the year, we were treated to a marathon hike up, down, and around the property by the local celebrity agent Rhys Davies, perhaps in an attempt to provide a sense of perspective as to the scale of the property.”
– Rich Stockdale, Founder & Managing Director (Oxygen Conservation)
The estate’s history is marked by intensive grazing, hard silage harvesting, and extensive application of synthetic fertiliser in an effort to make this precious landscape more and more productive. Sadly, this search for forced productivity has left the majority of the hill pasture devoid of any floral and faunal diversity.
But while this monotonous expanse of grass shows us a sliver of Esgair Arth’s past, there are glimpses of a much more complex story.
Integral to the site is the Coed Allt Craig Arth Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a designation indicating a protected area in the UK. In this case, it preserves a diverse broadleaf woodland with unique clusters of Wild Service Trees, a feature found in just one other woodland in Ceredigion, a stark contrast to the connected hill pasture above. Along with Sessile Oak, Hazel, Holly, and various other species, this woodland is desperately striving to reclaim its domain, attempting to push up and over the valley through natural regeneration.
The intensive grazing pressure, the strangling effect of historic farming infrastructure, the presence of invasive non-native species such as Himalayan Balsam, and the absence of decaying woodland habitat are collectively threatening the viability of this SSSI. All of this was evident from our first viewing and made our vision for the site clear: restore natural processes and make space for nature in this landscape. In the process, we will create a habitat alive with thriving woodland capable of harbouring current treasures such as Wild service and Small-leaved lime trees and in time, see the return of iconic species like the Pine marten and the Red squirrel.
IMMEDIATE IMPACT & BASELINE
Following the acquisition of Esgair Arth, our initial focus was on safety, security, and access. Working closely with local contractors and businesses, we cleared the entire site while prioritising the repurposing of salvageable materials. Additionally, we removed a redundant outdoor swimming pool, also recycling suitable materials to restore tracks and hard-standing areas.
Regarding the existing structures on the property, we worked with a truly skilled local builder to deliver extensive refurbishment. Throughout these transformative works, it has been so lovely to witness people from the local community again being part of the Estate’s future.
In parallel to these crucial works, we started analysing the available data to build a wider and more comprehensive understanding of the environmental ‘ground zero’. This approach laid the foundation for our exploration of current practices at the local level and the potential for integrating trees into a regenerative organic farming system. Recognising the significance of historical and present-day local context, we have embarked on a patient planning process for the future.
However, we never work in isolation and even before we completed the acquisition, we actively sought engagement from the local community and experts from further afield. We were delighted to explore the Estate with the local Wildlife Trust, Rivers Trust, Natural Resources Wales, Woodland Trust, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Ceredigion Council, and so many other friends and partners.
Perhaps most wonderfully we were also able to secure a fantastic Estate Manager from the local community, Lyall Spencer who has been instrumental to our progress so far.
“Working at Esgair Arth has been nothing short of incredible. Being given the opportunity to be part of an amazing project, with a fantastic team that share the same vision as I do, is both motivational and inspiring. The direct involvement of (real) conservation, habitat restoration, community engagement, wildlife monitoring, and surveying, in the county that I grew up in, have all been wonderful experiences.”
– Lyall Spencer, Esgair Arth Estate Manager (Oxygen Conservation)
Custodianship of Esgair Arth is an exceptional privilege, and this past spring (2023), we revelled in the signs of ancient established woodlands. The skies were graced by migratory birds like the Yellow wagtail, Greylag goose, and Northern wheatear graced the skies, while the forest floor was carpeted with Bluebells, Wild garlic, and Wood anemones. However, amidst these welcome sightings, we must remember we are still in the early stages, thoughtfully planning how we can encourage the landscape to thrive.
With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have been able to collaborate with local surveyors, volunteers, and passionate environmental groups. These collaborative efforts have facilitated the collection and mapping of crucial missing data, with one of the most exciting findings being the identification of the locations of three ancient tree species, two of which are thought to be over two centuries old! This survey will ultimately help us in realising our vision of providing the necessary space and time to allow these trees to naturally expand into an amazing, wooded Welsh landscape.
“The woodland floor in many areas is littered with Oak regeneration. We’ve had woodland specialists come to visit the site and state that ‘they have never seen regen like it’. This is such a promising start, considering how the landscape as a whole was managed just 2 years ago.”
– Dan Johnson, Head of Environment (Oxygen Conservation).
To begin this process, Lyall wasted no time in removing an extensive dilapidated fence line, which bereft of sheep grazing, merely hindered natural processes. With permission from Natural Resources Wales, removing the fence line was the first step in allowing the SSSI space to breathe and ancient woodland expansion to begin again.
Beyond the removal of fencing, we uncovered a historic sheep dip which we were able to remove and dispose of appropriately. The location of the sheep dip stands as a testament to an era of perhaps unfortunate environmental practices in the wider context of a very traditional farming system. Cypermethrin, a synthetic Pyrethroid, once utilised in sheep dips to control parasites, was permanently removed from the UK market in 2006 due to its ability (when leached to a watercourse) to kill all invertebrate life for up to 10 kilometres downstream, rippling through fish populations and aquatic ecosystems. Removing this redundant infrastructure represents a substantial stride toward achieving dramatic environmental change at the landscape scale.
“In returning to Esgair Arth this summer, it’s clear that removal of the extensive historic farming infrastructure was the equivalent of taking a noose from the neck of nature, we helped the environment breathe again. It was the kiss of life that the Estate needed and it’s thanked us for our efforts in incredible ways, demonstrated by the immediate abundance of flora, fauna, and funga – it is a truly magical place to be!”
– Rich Stockdale, Founder & Managing Director (Oxygen Conservation)
Our vision is to transform this estate and welcome people into this landscape. To do this, we are exploring potential uses for a number of the former agricultural barns and buildings. We would love for these to provide high-quality, NetZero ecotourism opportunities for people to experience this special part of West Wales. We have already engaged a wonderful local architect who walked to the Estate demonstrating just how many fabulous skilled people live and work in this community.
In recognition of the two sides of our landscape story at Esgair Arth, removal of the existing infrastructure has given freedom to the SSSI but the higher hammered ground will need a little more help. We have therefore engaged with an expert independent local woodland creation specialist and have submitted plans to see around 92,000 native broadleaf trees return to this landscape in the coming years. It is our hope that once established we will be able to welcome livestock back to the farm as part of a regenerative, organic agroforestry system demonstrating that people, nature, and farming can coexist harmoniously.