Rebecca Hosking has filmed hard-hitting environmental documentaries all over the world, but it is in East Portlemouth, South Devon, where she is making her own important mark on the landscape. Olivia Midgley went to meet her.
They say experiences in life shape the person you become, and Rebecca Hosking is a perfect example of this.
Growing up on her parents’ Leycombe Farm, near Modbury, South Devon, Rebecca naturally followed in her father’s environmentally conscious footsteps.
The family had always taken pride in wildlife on the farm and nurtured land to get the best from it.
It was this example of environmentally friendly farming which led to the business being featured on BBC’s Natural Worldprogramme.
The arrival of the BBC camera crew sparked a career move for Rebecca, which, in 2014, came back full circle.
She says: “That day on the farm really started a love of photography and filming for me. I found it so interesting. I ended up working for the BBC for 10 years.”
Rebecca worked alongside David Attenborough during her time with the broadcaster.
“I was travelling all around the world which was amazing, but I also saw a lot of devastation from deforestation and mining and felt very disenchanted with it.
“I wanted to make a stand and this started at home.”
Rebecca returned to the family farm in 2008 with a vision to become more ‘climate aware’.
She says: “I started my own sheep flock on a holistic plan grazing system, breeding animals which fit the landscape.
“I could have brought Beltex ewes in and bought-in a load of feed to keep them alive, or do what I did, which was to buy animals which naturally fitted the landscape with no other requirements.”
Rebecca set about buying a small flock of English Shetland sheep – a breed renowned for adaptability and hardiness. It was a quality Rebecca deemed essential for her windswept clifftop farming enterprise.
In 2014, Rebecca and her business partner Tim Green – her former boss from the BBC – took over the tenancy of Village Farm, a 70-hectare (172-acre) unit in the small coastal village of East Portlemouth.
The organic farm is situated on a hilltop so high that on a clear day, you can see the Lizard peninsula some 70 miles away.
It is located on a headland which juts into the English Channel, making it exposed to the elements, particularly the prevailing winter southwesters which come off the Atlantic.
Rebecca says: “They say your first sheep are your worst, and they were not great. We started crossing in some Icelandic and Hebridean.
“When we moved to Village Farm, we needed to up the stock and my shearer advised me to go up to the Shetland Islands.
The pair met with some crofters who sell sheep now and again to the English.
“They breed proper meat sheep. The Shetlands we have down here are mostly bred for their wool.
“I think the crofters thought we were mad going all that way, but we wanted sheep which were used to the elements.
“I am sure they had visions of them coming down here for their holidays and drinking cocktails.
Rebecca was co-producing a film in Hawaii, where she saw the devastation caused by plastic which had collected throughout the Pacific.
She says: “We saw rare wildlife, all being snared up in plastic which had come from places such as China, Japan and the US.
“When I returned home, I noticed the amount of plastic bags in the sea and ended up marching to the pub in the village and I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to get rid of plastic bags’.
“All shops agreed to it and pledged not to sell, give away or provide them in Modbury.
“The next thing we knew, we were in the New York Times, we had Japanese TV here, Fox News, NBC. It felt like Whisky Galore.”
Rebecca and Tim then began crossing sheep. They used Boreray, Manx, Hebridean, Icelandic and, next year, will introduce the Gotland into the bloodline.
She says: “We want a dual purpose animal, because there is demand for both meat and wool. We have seen real interest from local handspinners and felters who are particularly interested in the coloured fleece. A fleece can go for £20.
“It has been used for a whole range of things including eco coffins and festival hats. Because it is organic it provides us with another market. We have a lady who buys wool for baby clothes and blankets.
“It is a great marketing tool for us, because there are not many places where you can see sheep and the produce they give us.”
Most meat is sold locally to local restaurants and in next-day delivery meat boxes.
Village Farm is also part of the local Food Assembly based in nearby Kingsbridge. The online service allows local producers to sell directly to customers in their area.
Rebecca says: “It is another way of reducing food miles and connecting with the customer.
“People can see sheep in the field and know exactly where their food comes from. It gives us a unique selling point.”
She says the area’s tourist trade is ‘thumping’ throughout summer, which gives her an ideal opportunity to educate the public about food and farming.
Rebecca, who takes her lambs to Tideford Abattoir, Cornwall, says: “Our slow-growing animals start finishing right at the time the tourist trade hits. We are naturally tailored to the local market.”
The farm is accredited with The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and sheep are mob-grazed with a handful of goats and pigs.
Rebecca says: “We describe ourselves as magpies because we are forever pilfering ideas from other people globally.
“We used to pasture pigs in the south west about 100 years ago and I came across a man in the US who was pasturing his pigs.
“Being part of The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, this system, with pigs eating slugs and snails and so on, seemed to work perfectly.”
The pigs, crossed four ways with traditional English breeds, are rotationally grazed, following sheep and goats.
Rebecca says: “We plan to switch the system around. We will graze pigs first so they eat clover. Primitive sheep breeds are prone to bloat, so we think this could solve the problem.”
The Old English goats are ideally suited to the rough terrain.
“We have steep hills and they are terrifying to drive, so to set about cutting the woody growth would mean risking life and limb. The goats just strip it.”
Adapting the farm to survive the elements, particularly the harsh, south westerly wind which batters the clifftop almost all-year-round, was one of the drivers behind a major tree planting operation.
Village Farm teamed up with the Woodland Trust to plant 10,000 trees.
“When we first came here, we soon realised we were going to need a lot of trees,” says Rebecca.
“During the first winter, we planted 9,000 with the Woodland Trust, and a further 1,000 ourselves.
“We put shelter belts right across the farm. Not only will these, in time, provide shelter from weather, but also nesting places for birds and foraging areas for other wildlife. The trees are excellent in managing flood risk.
“The trees will provide a range of direct products, including firewood, nuts, fruit, berries and timber. But they also pull up nutrients from deep within the soil and make these available to livestock.
“This year, we will plant coppice and, next year, it will be 15,000 hazel, alder and other species.
“It will be 10 years until we see the full benefit, but we should see some good changes in about five years and we have already seen improvements.
The land, which had been used to grow wheat and barley for 20 years, was in a poor state when Rebecca and Tim took over.
She says: “We are seeing a change in soil quality each year. We introduced herb-rich swards into former arable fields, which has helped get fertility up in the soil.
“Improving soil and increasing organic matter is something we have been focused on and it is already paying off.”
Livestock graze fields all-year-round and hawthorn is being planted behind the solar-powered electric stock fencing to create permanent hedges, which, in time, will permanently segregate paddocks.
It is all part of the partnership’s holistic approach to farming.
Rebecca says: “We see the farm as an ecosystem. Everything in it has an important role to play and this is why organic makes sense for us.
“I look at the back of some of the products [conventional] farmers are putting on their land and you cannot even handle it, so who knows what it is doing to land and wildlife.
“I call what we are doing here a ‘whole-istic’ approach, because you have to look at the whole farm to ensure different elements work together.”