With increasing evidence that grazed pasture is a more effective carbon sink than woodland, Pantwgan Farm is at the forefront of conservation and the drive to net zero.

And so it should be. Set within 400 acres of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve just outside of Carmarthen, the organic farm sits alongside the mosaic of flower-rich meadows, spectacular woodlands, waterfalls and cascades at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

Run under the watchful eye of lead farm manager Huw Jones, looking after the environment, maintaining biodiverse habitats and producing food are of critical importance.

Here Huw looks after traditional breeds of Welsh black cattle and Balwen sheep.

“They’re really key to what we do here. We farm for biodiversity, that’s the reason we’re here. But farming for biodiversity you have to have livestock, the two are inextricably linked,” he says.

With just 70 head of cattle during the summer and 60 breeding ewes, the farm has been organic for the last 21 years. With limited housing for livestock, Huw uses the small herd and flock to its full potential on the 360 acres of permanent grassland.

“A lot of people will see the acreage we have versus the stocking levels and will think that it’s wildly understocked, and that might be true. But without the sheep and the cattle and the targeted grazing that they do, we would not have this landscape,” adds Huw.

The farm was established in 1998, when the National Botanic Garden took over the lease. The core missions of the garden from the outset were biodiversity, education and conservation.

“We needed the farmland to deliver those missions. So, the farm got established very early on in the first years and from there on we’ve worked towards conservation, biodiversity education,” he explains.

When Huw graduated from agricultural college, there was not enough work to keep him on his parents' 90-acre so he went to work in a factory just a few miles down the road.

"This job happened to come along at the same time that I left the factory and I jumped at the chance,” says Huw.

Seventeen years later he hasn’t looked back.

“It’s really good here. We established the National Nature Reserve (NNR) back in 2008. We wanted it to be a SSSI to start off with but at that time we didn’t have the amount of species that were needed. It turned out to be a really good thing because the restrictions that come with SSSI status are really quite stringent and we got the National Nature Reserve status in 2008,” says Huw.

Keeping the NNR going and flourishing is the focal point but none of this would happen without the livestock, as they’re being used for targeted grazing.

An added benefit of being so closely linked to the National Botanic Garden is that the farm can draw on educational resources and help educate visitors about the work that is being done here.

Another benefit of the Natural Nature Reserve and the way it is managed through grazing practices are the varying types of waxcaps which now call these fields their home.

“We have recorded over 40 different types of grassland fungi on one of our fields, 10 of which have the same international conservation status as the snow leopard, polar bear, European bison and Sumatran orangutan.

“These internationally rare waxcaps have really started to spread across the site since we started managing the farm in an organic way and through the structured grazing that we do,” says Huw.

The land doesn’t get ploughed and is kept as permanent pasture. In addition, wildflower meadows have also made a big comeback, now taking in 40 acres. And there is more to the wildflower meadows than meets the eye.

Huw explains: “We’re actually doing some quite interesting DNA research here, looking at the soil life on our meadows versus nature reserves and more intensive grassland elsewhere in Wales. We’re hoping to understand more fully how our less intensive farming benefits the biodiversity below our feet and creates a more resilient farming ecosystem.

“There is also growing interest in how hay meadows or permanent pasture have a better root structure and help to lock carbon in the soil. It’s almost like an underground forest.

“Obviously if you are growing trees at some point you are going to cut those trees down which releases a lot of carbon that’s been stored. Whereas if you’ve got this permanent pasture that’s managed by livestock it’s captured there permanently. That is a lot better for the environment longer term. If everybody managed the pasture and the grassland that way we’d have a much better future, I think.”

Conservation volunteers monitor the species diversity of the meadows and a lot of research has gone into making green hay and the farm is now making a good profit from selling wildflower seed to the likes of the National Trust, landscape architects and people who manage roadside verges.

“Planting trees is not a no-no at all. We’re constantly planting hedgerows and there is a fair bit of specimen tree planting going on here too. We’re not saying that planting trees is a bad thing. It’s just that the research is leaning towards permanent pasture capturing more carbon than trees. So it has to be the right tree in the right place.”

Sustainability is key. However, Huw feels there is more they can do here to improve their credentials. “We’re nowhere near as sustainable as I’d like to be. We obviously still have diesel powered equipment and we’re not using solar and wind as much as I’d like to. That’s something we’re looking into and hopefully there will be a change in infrastructure,” he says.

Sustainable food production is just as important.

“We like to keep everything as local as we can. Cutting food miles down is a big thing for me. We had a direct meat box scheme before Covid came, which worked so well. Unfortunately it came to a bit of a halt here but I’d like to get that going again.

“Obviously that also gives us another connection to our customers and visitors.”

A side product on the farm that Huw is keen to find further use for, is the black wool of the Balwen sheep. It is currently only being used in the Botanic Garden to put around plants as a natural slug repellent.

The future of Pantwgan farm is one Huw is excited about. He says: “The future of the farm is exciting. We have so many opportunities here to trial things, look at the science and work out how we can feed an ever growing population in a sustainable way. We have to find a balance between conservation and feeding people and I’m excited to be part of finding solutions to that problem.”