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Our Green Story: Sheepdrove - Bringing Back Nature to a Downland Farm
We are the Kindersley family, and our Green Story goes back over half a century to 1972 when our parents, a couple of ex-art student hippies, bought a derelict farmhouse in an overgrown wood high up on the downs above Lambourn in a sealed bid auction. Looking back, it was like the hit BBC show The Good Life on steroids! There was a tree growing through the porch, no mains electricity and we lived in a caravan until my parents - who were very capable DIYers- eventually made the loft liveable so we could camp there.
The good life
Every weekend and school holiday we decamped to Sheepdrove with all the cats, dogs and guinea pigs in our Volkswagen van. My parents, busy creating an organic vegetable garden, baking our daily bread (something my mother still does today, although now she freshly mills her own flour from her own wheat too) and making the house vaguely habitable, abandoned us to the wild. We free-ranged through the nettles, up trees, and into the forbidden farmyard full of fertiliser bags, rusty corrugated iron, and barbed wire - yes, it was bloomin’ marvellous!
Evenings were spent taking baths in buckets, reading by oil lamp, and eventually watching a tiny black and white telly powered by a car battery. We even had a wind turbine - an early model from the Netherlands whose wings blew off in a gale! But in the fields beyond our boundary, all was not well. I remember so clearly finding the last harebell on the wayside - and then there were none. Where have all the flowers gone indeed? My parents planted a hedgerow on our boundary, and it died because of the blanket spraying of herbicides in the fields around us. The fields around us were farmed by a beef testing centre, managed by a government agency, the Milk Marketing Board, with cattle kept inside and fields growing either rye grass for silage or cereals for animal feed.
Meanwhile, my father was making a name for himself by building a small company that started in the basement of our home in south London (and soon took up more space than we did!) into what became a global business that revolutionised non-fiction publishing - Dorling Kindersley, or DK as it became known. He’d begun his publishing career as an art director for Mitchell Beazley (where, incidentally, he was responsible for The Joy of Sex - 12 million copies sold) and left to pioneer an integrated words-and-pictures approach to communication. His statement, “Through the picture, I see reality; through words, I understand it” features on quotation websites.
My parents’ commitment to living sustainably led directly to their collaboration with environmentalist, activist, and smallholder John Seymour. In 1976 The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency was published and, appearing shortly after the publication of E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful and The Good Life’s first showing on British television in 1975, caught the spirit of the age - with sales exceeding all expectations at over one million copies - and established DK’s reputation.
My father made sure that sustainability was a key theme of DK’s publishing with books like Seymour’s Blueprint for a Green Planet (1987) and Jonathan Porritt’s Save the Earth (1991). This legacy continues today with Tony Juniper’s How We're F***ing Up Our Planet and John’s The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency still in print and reaching a new generation as a classic guide to off-grid green living.
A chance for nature recovery
In the 1990s came the news that, with the deregulation of the milk market in Britain, the Milk Marketing Board would be dissolved and the beef testing centre was put up for sale. Thanks to DK’s success, my parents were in a position to buy the land and farm buildings.
Seeing the nature-rich world that Sheepdrove is now, it’s difficult to imagine what a barren nature desert it was then. Fortunately, we have albums of aerial photographs commissioned by the Milk Marketing Board as visual proof. My parents were determined to reclaim the farm for nature and repair the environmental damage inflicted on the land by post-war intensive farming practices reliant on artificial inputs - agri-business, not agriculture, as John Seymour liked to say.
Over the following decades they put back into the landscape lost features like hedgerows, trees, and dew ponds. Over 65 acres of new woodland were established, two new dew ponds created, and thousands of hedgerow shrubs planted - the majority without any government funding as, at that time, hedgerows were perceived as incompatible with the featureless landscape which had come to define the Lambourn Downs - thank goodness attitudes have now changed. The farm is now home to over 13,000 metres of hedgerow and almost 100 acres of woodland of which fourteen acres are ancient and broadleaf native. The Millennium aka Jonathan [Porritt)’s Wood, planted in 2000 to offset Forum for the Future’s carbon emissions is a pioneering example of tree planting to offset carbon footprint.
Two hundred and fifty acres of chalk downland which had been ploughed up and destroyed when the land was intensively farmed have been restored to flower-rich pasture for grazing and haymaking. Grassy uncultivated strips and wildflower margins act as wildlife corridors, providing habitat and sustenance for insects and small mammals brought raptors, buzzards, and red kites can be seen wheeling in the skies overhead while dusk brings the ghostly form of barn owls swooping silently along the field edges. As a mixed organic farm with arable and pasture, the farm is a haven for Red List farmland birds including corn buntings, fieldfares, and yellowhammers. A constructed wetland was created to process wastewater from the farm by a gravity-operated seedbed purification system and the resulting lake is teaming with carp, visited by waterfowl, waders, and diving swallows and house martins - plus it meets European bathing standards for wild swimming.
Campaigning for nature
There was - and remains - something of the hippy activist and eco-warrior about Peter and Juliet. In 2001 they made the headlines and Radio 4’s Today programme in launching high court proceedings challenging the government's slaughter of healthy animals to combat the foot and mouth crisis - a policy which proved catastrophic for the British countryside, farming and tourism. In 2006 Peter resigned as a trustee of the Soil Association over its certification of organic salmon; today questions are still being asked about pollution, parasites, and high fish mortality rates. My parents continue to fund campaigns against GM food and GM editing via GMFreeze and Beyond GM. They believe in giving back, with donations to charities and NGOs great (Greenpeace) and small (our local village food bank) and fund environmental campaigns plus, unsurprisingly given their artistic background, sponsor our local theatre and music festival.
Over the years my parents ploughed heart, soul, and the most advanced ideas in agro-ecology into creating Sheepdrove as a holistic model of sustainable land management. But being pioneers of nature-friendly farming was not enough; they wanted to demonstrate - to publish, if you like - to as wide and broad an audience as possible, that organic agriculture is good for nature and human wellbeing, delivers economic benefit – for planet, people, and profit - and has a crucial role to play in combating the climate and nature crisis. And so the next stage of their green journey began…
A green building
In 2004 HRH Prince Charles, now King Charles III, opened an eco-friendly events venue at Sheepdrove. From the start, my parents’ goal was to show all visitors, be they corporate clients, wedding, funeral and farm stay guests, or other farmers and land managers, how business can grow and reduce its environmental impact at the same time. To do so, the building had to be designed and constructed with sustainability in mind, to reflect the aims of the farm, as a ‘green building’, of which the core principles are sustainable building materials, energy efficiency, renewable energy generation, water efficiency, and daylighting and natural ventilation for a healthier indoor environment.
Non-toxic and ethically sourced materials included the Douglas Fir timber frame, walls of reclaimed rammed chalk, and Western Red Cedar shingles, while in the washroom the cubicles were made of recycled toothpaste tubes and ‘granite’ sinks of reconstituted CD cases. Further eco-friendly features and practices included abundant natural light plus energy-efficient LED lights and passive ventilation (no air con at Sheepdrove!) and an intelligent building management system.
The garden was planted by broadcaster and writer Jekka McVicar with organically cultivated herbs; it is not widely known that even so-called bee friendly plants available in garden centres are treated with pesticides that are toxic to pollinators and can persist in the plant and potting compost for months.
Strategies for sustainable events
Nowadays (thank goodness) it’s commonplace to offer drinking water filtered and bottled on-site but from the moment we opened the venue in 2004, Sheepdrove water from the farm spring was served in Sheepdrove branded bottles to eliminate the need for single-use glass or plastic bottles and reducing not only waste but carbon emissions in the transport of bottled water, plus drinking glasses and mugs were always freely available for visitors to negate the need for disposables. The grey water recycling system necessitated the use of exclusively eco-friendly cleaning products free from triclosan, parabens, phthalates, and phosphates; nowadays we can purchase locally manufactured cleaning products from local suppliers - SESI are made in Oxfordshire (the next-door county) and supplied in bulk and reusable containers by west Berkshire-based Thatcham Refillable.
Energy-saving technology is used wherever possible, with fossil-fuel-free and non-nuclear electricity sourced from Ecotricity, electricity generated from our own solar panels and wind turbines, heating harvested from the earth via a ground source heat pump, water pumped from our own borehole and cleaned through the power of plants through the constructed wetland to help make our green building self-sustaining.
Today, as a building with reduced energy consumption along with the use of low carbon emission energy through onsite energy generation and no energy used from non-renewable sources, Sheepdrove’s event venue is carbon neutral and operationally net zero.
But there’s no resting on their green laurels for these champions of sustainability; in 2017, a free-to-use electric car charger was installed in the car park and we have three electric vehicles for farm staff, are in the process of converting a Land Rover Series 1 to electric for use on the farm, and are about to expand our renewable installations by replacing a leaking asbestos roof with an infinity solar roof provided by Oxford-based GB-Sol and manufactured in their factory in Wales.
Nature getaways on the farm
In 2016 we began to convert redundant buildings so that visitors could stay overnight and benefit from spending time in Sheepdrove’s nature-rich landscape. A boathouse at the lake became an off-grid ‘tiny house’ heated by an air source heat pump. A former farm building was converted to a nine-bedroom ecolodge powered by 100% renewable (non-nuclear) energy. Planning permission has been received to convert two former grain silos to eco-stays. The growing trend in nature escapes has delivered a welcome new source of revenue to help fund our conservation projects, making our tourism ventures truly green in that they contribute directly to protecting and enhancing nature and wildlife on the farm.
A return to earth
After reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Juliet became interested in the care of the dying, and natural death movements. This led to establishing a natural burial ground at Sheepdrove. A natural or green burial is not only a fully sustainable alternative to conventional burial or cremation (did you know that a cremation releases 245 kg of carbon into the atmosphere?) but natural burial grounds are managed with nature in mind to create a green space for peaceful reflection. We also host green funerals led by humanist celebrants who work closely with the family and friends to create a unique and personal funeral that is both a dignified farewell and a celebration of a life. Humanism is founded on shared values rooted in our common humanity and our shared human needs, transcending cultural and religious traditions, and respecting the rights and equal dignity of all human beings.
An eco-wedding venue
Resembling a contemporary long barn with exposed timber beams and lofty vaulted ceilings, our event spaces are a stunning setting for a wedding, but did you know that the average carbon footprint of a wedding in the UK is more than the average annual household footprint? We are grateful for the growing trend for green weddings with couples decreasing the ecological impact of their special day by choosing eco-friendly alternatives such as seasonal flowers, local food, edible favours, and an environmentally minded wedding venue like our own. Sheepdrove is a founder member of the Sustainable Wedding Alliance, a collective of businesses with the joint purpose of creating a more sustainable, environmentally conscious wedding industry.
Central to our strategy at Sheepdrove is a belief in community and collaboration. We operate as a ‘blank canvas’ venue and choose to promote local suppliers to positively contribute to the local economy and actively support local entrepreneurship and creativity. The aim of this policy of pursuing partnerships is to create a supportive and collaborative business community here at Sheepdrove. We support our local rural economy by providing a home for businesses that share our values and our commitment to ‘people and nature together’ with office space in our green building and workshop space in former - and redundant in organic systems - livestock housing.
Connect with nature
Public access is important to us; we want Sheepdrove to be a place people feel welcome whether it be to visit the countryside, experience organic farming, or connect with nature and benefit from the ‘green therapy’ that it is now recognised that access to the natural environment delivers. In addition to the 13,423 metres of public rights of way that cross the farm and which we maintain, we also have opened up permissive paths that create circuits around the farm and safe active travel routes to connect the farm to our local village, Lambourn so that visitors to and residents of Lambourn can hike or bike to the farm with barely having to set foot or wheel on a tarmac road. The goal remains to create a haven for nature that is also a place of community where everyone feels welcome.
Our now octogenarian parents are still actively involved in the running of Sheepdrove and are just as ready to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in as ever - my mother is head gardener, overseeing WRAG (Work and Retrain As a Gardener Scheme) trainees, while every week my father fills the many bird feeders around the venue and, over the winter months, is responsible for scattering tonnes of grain around the farm to feed the farmland birds over the winter months. We’ll leave the last words to them…
“Our original aim was to protect ourselves from the polluting chemicals used by farmers all around us and recreate the chalk downland landscape that we fell in love with so many years ago. We have witnessed the miraculous generosity of nature as the countryside around us has come back to life and, with the return of myriad birds, wildflowers, small mammals, reptiles, and insect life, land which was turning into an arid prairie has been transformed to a rich tapestry of wildlife.”
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