Farming with nature

Farming with Nature #2 – Gowbarrow Hall

There’s a revolution happening on the tranquil shores of Ullswater. Across the lake from Hallin Fell, a broad, tree-fringed valley reaches back towards the Mell Fells. Closest to the water, the fields are neat and green, squared by hedges and dotted with proud veteran oaks. Higher up, the land is rougher and wetter, with alder trees tracing a network of rocky streams. This lovely slice of Lakeland is Gowbarrow Hall Farm, where a pioneering young farming couple, Sam and Claire Beaumont, are making a life for themselves.

Pigs at Gowbarrow Hall Farm (Sam Beaumont)

Claire grew up at Gowbarrow Hall, it having been in her family for 42 years. Claire’s grandfather farmed the land until the mid 1990s, and then the land was let and grazed predominantly with sheep. After a stint living elsewhere, training as an engineer and meeting husband Sam, Claire came home, in part because of the allure of the Lake District as a place to raise a family, but also so that they could immerse themselves more fully into the care of the land.

Claire and Sam are thinking very differently about how to farm. Inspired by ideas developed in the USA, they have become some of the Lake District’s first regenerative farmers.

The Beaumont Family © Jennie Hall

Farming practices that became the norm in the decades following the Second World War took a major toll on our countryside and its wildlife. We’re all too familiar with the decline in birds, insects and more conspicuous creatures, but the same story has played out unseen below ground. The widespread use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, coupled with government subsidies that incentivised production at all costs have drained much of the life from our soils.

It is the aim of regenerative farmers to turn this around, while still feeding the world.

A big part of the new approach at Gowbarrow is a technique known as mob grazing. Instead of having large numbers of sheep grazing most of the year round, Claire and Sam have switched to hardy native shorthorn cattle. For the summer months, they are aiming to simulate the way that herds of wild herbivores would have been moved around a wilder landscape by predators, before we humans eradicated them all. Using electric fencing, the cattle are held in small paddocks for just a few days, before being moved onto the next. Over the course of the year, all the land is grazed, but through mob grazing, each piece is also granted a long period of rest. During these rests, the grasses and flowers grow taller and their roots grow deeper. Larger plants can capture more carbon from the air, and their roots push it down below ground, building the soil and sustaining the incredible diversity of creatures that make their homes there.

We rightly think of trees as being vital in the fight against climate change, but the soil is equally, if not more important. There is more carbon in the soil than there is in the atmosphere and all the world’s plants and animals combined. Our beleaguered soils could contain far more carbon than they do currently, so better soil management, and employing practices like mob grazing which helps to build soil could have planetary significance.

Although strides are being made, our understanding of exactly how soils function is a long way from complete. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s complicated. Soils are so much more than just mud and dirt; they are teeming with life. It is said there are more microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are humans on Earth. These, alongside the nematodes, fungi, insects and countless other creatures interact with the roots of plants, the rocks, water and air, breaking down organic matter and cycling nutrients in ways that we barely understand. It’s a whole new world waiting to be discovered, one which underpins all the rest of life.

Healthy soils support healthy plants, which in turn support the insects, birds, mammals and livestock. Every stage of the food chain benefits when the soils are in good nick.

Flower-rich pasture at Gowbarrow Hall (Lee Schofield)

Away from the mob grazed fields, other changes are afoot. The higher, rougher land at the top of the valley used to be sheep grazed for most of the summer. The constant, selective nibbling by the sheep meant that flowers had become few and far between and the area had become dominated by coarse grasses and rushes, which had little value to wildlife and not much nutritional value to livestock. At Gowbarrow, this system has been turned on its head. This rough pasture is now left largely ungrazed during the summer, giving flowers the chance to open to the sun, providing a feast for the pollinators. To give things a boost, wildflower plugs are being planted, with the help of friends and volunteers. I chipped in for a few hours last summer. Even without the plugs, the flowers are now much more conspicuous, with carpets of betony, harebell, selfheal, sneezewort and bird’s foot trefoil enlivening the grass. The cattle, along with a handful of fell ponies and pigs come up after the flowers have set their seeds, chomping back the coarse grasses and creating the conditions for the next year’s blooming.

Claire and Sam aren’t alone in their endeavours, having teamed up with regenerative agriculture consultant, Caroline Grindrod. Caroline is providing advice about how the farm can be run to get maximum benefit from the regenerative approach, but none of them want to keep it a secret. Gowbarrow Hall Farm is now also a training venue, where Caroline educates farmers and land managers also keen to adopt regenerative practices. I attended one her courses last year, which was every bit as eye-opening as it was inspiring. Classroom sessions in Claire and Sam’s front room, trying not to be distracted by the views out across Ullswater and to the fells beyond, were interspersed with walks out onto the land to see how the soils were changing, and to help us understand the practicalities of managing livestock in such a novel system.

Caroline spent a decade working on a Hill Farm near Coniston, so understands the challenges of farming in Cumbria’s demanding landscape as well as anyone. Her down to earth approach is making real waves in the Cumbrian farming community. Gowbarrow Hall is a long way from being the only farm practicing regenerative agriculture in Cumbria, and the number of projects that she’s involved with is growing all the time.

What makes regenerative agriculture so appealing to farmers, is that as well as all the environmental benefits, it also makes business sense. Regenerative farming relies much less on costly artificial inputs than more conventional farming does. As pastures and soils recover, they provide a broader range of nutrients to the livestock. This keeps them healthier and means they need less in the way of dietary supplements or medicine. By only grazing the same piece of land for short periods, the livestock become harder targets for pests and parasites, keeping the vet bills lower still. Feeding on pastures that are natural, diverse and healthy is far better for the livestock, and make for tastier and more nutritious meat. Lower costs, higher quality produce and good for nature. There isn’t much not to like about regenerative farming.

Mob grazing at Gowbarrow Hall (Sam Beaumont)

To find out more about Gowbarrow Hall Farm and how you can buy their produce, visit

To learn more about regenerative agriculture and the work that Caroline does to promote and support it, visit

This is the second in a series of articles on Farming with Nature in Cumbria. It was first published in the April 2021 edition of Cumbria Life Magazine