Sheep farming is well suited to the rolling Mid Wales hills, but John and Laura Lewis have successfully built on this to create a more resilient business. Gaina Morgan finds out more about their unique glamping venture.
Sheep farming is in the blood for husband and wife team John and Laura Lewis, who both hail from traditional farming stock, but the couple were clear that this enterprise alone on their 53-hectare (130-acre) hill unit between Llandrindod Wells and Newtown would not be enough to sustain family life.
It is here that John, a carpenter by trade, farms the 450-ewe flock of Welsh ewes which his late father Ray started in 1966. Meanwhile Laura, who has a degree in education, has held roles including nursery manager and latterly as Powys additional needs co-ordinator for the charity, Action for Children.
The ewes are mostly put to Bluefaced Leicester tups while some are put to a Cheviot to produce replacements.
Those carrying twins lamb indoors and those with singles stay outside, with lambing starting in March.
Ewe lambs are sold at local Knighton market as breeders, while wether lambs are reared on grass and sold direct at six months to either Randall Parker Foods, Llanidloes, as fat, or at Knighton Market as stores.
Previously, John and Ray had been looking at diversification, but with sheep, egg production and holiday accommodation the staple of rural life in Mid Wales, they knew they had to find something different.
Originally John’s brainchild, they settled on luxury treehouses and Squirrel’s Nest was born.
John first began work on the first venture with the help of an architect and Ray in 2017.
He used oak, larch and western red cedar from the local sawmill and, while his experience of building with oak and working with local and rural producers meant the construction was relatively straightforward, the planning process and building regulation requirements were a challenge.
John says: “The first treehouse was in planning for about nine months. It was a long process with lots of emails, inspections and assessments.
“They are classed as a dwelling and therefore have to comply with building regulations. We have had to put sprinkler systems in and ensure doorways, steps and so on comply.
“It was quite frustrating at the time because we felt it affected the look and feel of a treehouse, but we are happy the dwellings are safe and fit for purpose.”
The family opened their first treehouse to guests in June 2018, followed by a second in July the following year.
After Ray’s sudden death in April last year, John and Laura continued to take the vision forward and completed their third build in November 2020.
Laura looks after the marketing side of the venture, which is mainly done via social media and the Squirrel’s Nest website.
She says: “I was shocked at the amount of money we were paying in commission to our booking agent, so we approached a designer to devise our own website with a booking system.
“We are mainly seen on Instagram and other social media sites and soon began to get direct bookings via our website, so we knew it was the right thing to do.
“We were also approached by some online directories which charge a fee and not commission. We signed up and they drove a huge amount of traffic to our website. We could see a gap in the market, especially with the
wealth of unique and inspiring structures being built in the area.”
With that in mind, Laura decided to build her own online directory business, The Wanderlist, which lists quirky and unique accommodation spaces throughout the UK.
The site went live in August last year.
“We phased the launch, starting on social media to get our name and brand out there,” she says.
“When starting up, I approached owners, asking if they would like some exposure via our site – all for free.
“As owners, they could see the content we were showcasing via social media was positive and most had lots of contact from our followers asking for availability. I felt the owners had faith that we would do a good job once we went live.
“The Wanderlist reflects our ethos as a family business, keen to showcase what the UK has to offer. These truly are amazing spaces that should be shouted about. With domestic tourism set to take off this summer now the vaccine is being rolled out, we hope property owners will take advantage of commission-free exposure.”
The Wanderlist is already proving successful and Laura is convinced that the one-off annual fee will be seen as a better option and a huge cost saving than a commission-based system.
“The amount of properties in our area which have diversified into some sort of accommodation, whether that be glamping or holiday houses, prompted us to just go for it. Lockdown meant I had more time to really establish the website.”
“I was shocked at the amount of money we were paying in commission to our booking agent, so we approached a designer to devise our own website with a booking system”
Laura is also on the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator Programme and was selected for the Welsh Government’s Farming Connect Agri Academy Class of 2020.
The intensive programme of mentoring, support and training is delivered by Menter a Busnes and funded by the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
it was a ‘different’ year due to the coronavirus pandemic and unfortunately all trips were cancelled, but the cohort took to online tasks and hope to travel later this summer if restrictions ease.
She says: “I believe being part of the Agri Academy Business and Innovation Programme will give me the confidence, networks and skills to help get Squirrel’s Nest and The Wanderlist brands known and out there.
“I’m interested to meet like-minded people and find out how and what other people are up to in the country in terms of diversification. The treehouses were John’s idea, but I was adamant I wanted to brand and showcase them properly.
“While The Wanderlist develops, we hope to expand the business further. The NatWest Accelerator Programme allows me to take a step back from the Squirrel’s Nest and The Wanderlist, to look at our strategy and plan for future growth.”
The sheep, some carpentry and the diversification make for a busy life, but the pair feel they have found a niche that fits their lifestyle, with their two young boys, Charlie and Bertie.
The compelling views, the comfort, the high-spec design and furnishings and the novelty factor make such a break a dream come true for those needing to unwind. But the thought, craftsmanship, eye for detail and business acumen that underpins the project is inspirational.
The couple have also created The Wanderlist, an online directory to promote unique tourism opportunities across the UK.