Farming with nature

Farming with Nature #6 – Cannerheugh

Farming is facing a challenging future. Now that we’ve left the EU, the government is busy trying to design a new system of agricultural support. The intentions sound good, with a focus on rewarding farming which helps nature, locks up carbon and reduces flood risk, but the details are painfully slow in coming. With the old system already being phased out, but no certainty about what will replace it, many farmers are understandably nervous. A new trade deal looks set to allow meat from Australia, reared under very different welfare standards to ours, to flood the UK market, potentially undercutting our home-grown produce. To top it all, climate change is starting to bite, changing weather patterns and disrupting traditional farming routines.

New hedges, sheep and Cannerheugh’s view over the Eden Valley

Sitting in the kitchen at Cannerheugh Farm drinking tea with Paul Renison, these issues seem remote and unreal. The sun shines through the picture window, giving an uninterrupted view of the Eden Valley and the Lake District Fells beyond. Paul’s wife Nic bustles in with their daughter carrying a large cool box. They’ve just been down in Melmerby, selling their eggs, frozen sausages and bacon from the back of the car, a sort of pop-up farm shop. It was a good session, they nearly sold out, and only a couple of packets are returned to the freezer.

As Nic starts chopping the veg for dinner, they tell me about the farming journey they’ve been on. Both Nic and Paul had years of conventional farming experience before they bought the 360-acre farm in 2012. For the first few years, they farmed using the methods they’d used previously, a system which relied on fertiliser and bought in feeds. Although not heavy users of these artificial inputs, it wasn’t long before their costs were eating up the already slim margins.

Cannerheugh is situated just outside Renwick, at the base of the Pennines. The farmhouse sits 820 feet above sea level but rises to almost 1,500 feet, where it meets the S-bends of the Alston road as it climbs up to Hartside. At this sort of altitude, the weather can be harsh – cold and wet. To make it even worse, for weeks at a stretch, Cannerheugh finds itself in the path of the Helm Wind. Britain’s only named wind, the Helm is famous for its relentlessness and ferocity. Nic admitted that she didn’t realise how bad the Helm Wind was until after the farm was bought. She certainly knows now. High, cold, wet and windy – this can be a properly tough place to farm.

With tea drunk and veg in the oven, we pull boots on and head out. There’s no sign of the Helm Wind today, but the defences Nic and Paul have put up against it are in plain sight. Thick hedges criss-cross the farm’s sloping fields. Pete Leeson from the Woodland Trust has been a big help, providing trees and fencing materials, and the rewards for Paul and Nic and their livestock have been huge. It doesn’t take a lot of protection from the wind to give grass growth a massive boost, something that the hedges now provide in spades, while also giving the livestock some welcome shelter from the gales.

Very free-range chickens

By 2014, Nic and Paul realised that things had to change. Inspired by regenerative farmers from the UK, the US and Sweden, they started experimenting with mob grazing, keeping livestock grouped together, grazing in short bursts before moving them onto new pastures, allowing the previous one to rest and recover. It transformed the farm. The combination of long rest periods, intense short bursts of grazing and the shelter from the wind granted by the hedges was like steroids for the grass, and Paul and Nic soon found they no longer needed to spend on fertiliser or bought in feeds to achieve the same levels of productivity. Over the years, they’ve realised that cattle perform better in mob grazing systems, so their herd of Angus cross cattle have grown as sheep numbers have dropped.

More innovations have followed. Chickens, moved around the pastures in home-made ‘eggmobiles’ add natural fertility to the soil through their droppings, whilst also providing eggs and meat to sell. Pigs have arrived too, living outside for most of the year, rootling in shelter belts and adding a few more products to the growing list. As we walked back over to the farmyard, we passed ‘no-dig’ vegetable plots and a polytunnel where healthy looking crops of peas, spinach, potatoes and tomatoes were emerging. The sound of sawing and hammering grew louder as we approached one of the stone barns. Inside, three shepherd’s huts were under construction. These, alongside converted military trailers, will give tourists cosy places to stay while they explore the beautiful surroundings.

This is farm diversification at its best. Alongside the things that Paul and Nic can sell, the pork, chicken, eggs, vegetables, accommodation and 100% grass fed beef and lamb, they are also producing things that are less tangible. Those lovely hedges provide homes for wildlife and lock up carbon from the atmosphere, as do the farm’s increasingly healthy soils. The long rest periods in the fields allow a longer growth of grass, which is far better for insects, and all the things that eat them. Swallows and house martins were skimming over our heads as we walked, and Paul tells me they have more nests around the farm than ever this year.

Pigs are reared alongisde the sheep, cattle and chickens at Cannerheugh

As a younger man, Paul aspired to having a flock of a thousand ewes. Today he has 200, but he’s never been happier. Farming like this has changed them both. They now measure their success by how much clover there is in their pastures, how many beetles they can find in their cowpats and what that says about the health of their farm’s ecosystem. They seem hugely energised by their innovations and by farming in way that works with nature. The fact that they’re not losing money any more must be nice too. With both of them working full time on the farm, there’s nothing faddy about anything that they’re doing – every aspect is essential to their lives and their livelihoods.

So how about those big threats to farming then – the uncertainty about government support, trade deals and climate breakdown? None of them are likely to go away anytime soon, but it feels like if any farm can weather them, Cannerheugh can.  

To find out more about the Renison’s farm, including where you can buy their produce, visit or