Lord Newborough: 'I think we have a responsibility to leave something better than what we inherited'

The Rhug estate in north Wales has been in Lord Newborough’s family since the ninth century, but he's determined to do things differently

Welcome
to the farm of
the future
Welcome to the farm of the future Credit: Tobias Harvey

It’s a clear September morning in Corwen, north Wales and after being led by his chocolate Labrador, Truffles, through gorse and bracken to the top of a hill, Lord Newborough is describing the rugged view in front of us. ‘This is the Dee Valley. Straight ahead is the farm shop and over there are the Berwyn mountains. At one point the estate used to join up with the one on the coast and covered 86,000 acres, but wine, women and death duties left it very fragmented.’

A wiry, raffish 71-year-old, casually dressed in chinos, checked shirt and fleece, Lord Newborough and his family have lived on the Rhug (pronounced Reeg) estate in this particular corner of Denbighshire since the ninth century. But one of the most revolutionary changes took place in 1998, when, on inheriting the title on his father’s death, Lord Newborough began to convert the estate to organic – a highly unusual move for the time.

Today Rhug’s award-winning organic meat (‘we have a strong Michelin recognition’), which includes beef, lamb, venison and bison, is beloved of chefs including Raymond Blanc and Marcus Wareing, and has graced tables everywhere from The River Café to Clarence House. But it is the growth potential for bison and sika, the 70-strong herd of dainty Japanese deer that excites him the most: ‘Venison and bison are the meat of the future – a “healthy” red meat that’s leaner than fish or chicken, high in essential minerals and low in fat. They are a superfood and a very viable proposition.’

 The estate’s herd of Japanese sika deer Credit: Tobias Harvey

His father would not recognise the estate if he could see it now. ‘It was beef and lamb essentially, fairly basic low-input, low-output farming, but he used far too many chemicals for my liking. If I had told him I was going to go organic, the chances are he would have disinherited me,’ he says with a long laugh.

Lord Newborough has always been something of a trailblazer, but his latest venture has surprised even him. He is about to launch into uncharted waters – the beauty market. ‘I’ve put more cream on my face in the past two years than I have throughout my life.’

The farm shop, which sells more than 3,000 hand-selected products  Credit: Paul Curran 

Wild Beauty is a high-end organic skincare and bodycare range of 13 products, including skin tonic with meadowsweet, and body wash with bergamot and nettle – 50 per cent of the range’s ingredients are wild-foraged from the estate.

‘It was inspired by the landscape here, and thinking what else could we do with what we have on the estate,’ he says. ‘I travel a lot, and I was walking through duty-free thinking, “Where is the story here? Where is the provenance of those products?” It’s the thinking we use with our meat. I think that’s so important, and the same principles will apply with the skincare.’

The range is vegan, halal and gluten-free. ‘I wanted it to be honest because I think there’s a lot of dishonesty out there,’ he says. ‘I’ve looked at a lot of products over the past couple of years and I haven’t found one yet that has the amount of certification that we’ve got.’

Lord Newborough with his wife Sue and their dog Truffles on the Rhug estate.    Credit: Courtesy of Lord Newborough

Bristling with restless energy, he has an extremely hands-on approach and is seemingly tireless, ‘He’ll outlive us all,’ Rhug’s administration manager Iain Russell tells me. Every day he’s up at 5.45am (‘This morning I was replying to someone at 6am enquiring if they could buy our products in London’) before going on his running machine. His latest gadget is a £4,000 oxygen machine that he uses twice a day. ‘I swear by it: it’s all part of a search for eternal youth,’ he says.

When he took over the estate, it covered 2,500 acres with just nine employees, today it has 12,500 acres (including a shop, café, takeaway and drive-through – the first on a farm in the UK) and they employ 100 staff. ‘In the past 12 years our turnover has gone from £1.5 million to £10 million,’ he says. ‘It’s a growing business and a more diverse business. Farming doesn’t make you money and so adding value wherever you can and sweating your assets is a way of securing the estate for the future.’

For head forager Richard Prideaux, it was a natural progression from the wildfood venture he used to run from the estate – sourcing foraged ingredients for top London restaurants – to Wild Beauty. ‘The first thing we did was to look through our survey notes and say this is what we know grows on the estate, and go back and establish if it is still there, what’s here now, and what else is there?’

Estate head forager Richard Prideaux Credit: Tobias Harvey

Typically, the product lead time is eight months, and given the seasonal nature of the picking, planning ahead is everything. ‘Initially the formulator found it difficult to get her head around seasons,’ Lord Newborough explains. ‘She was asking, “Can I have gorse flower, can I have heather?” And Richard was saying, “No you can’t, it’s not there all the time.”’

‘I start planning my calendar now for the start of February to make sure we have enough time to collect those ingredients,’ adds Prideaux. And we have a diary of weather; we want to know how it compares to last year.’

The small-scale nature of the operation means that Prideaux will typically spend eight hours out in all weathers picking everything from gorse flowers to nettles.

A larger-than-life character, Prideaux is also a survival instructor and an adviser on this year’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, which due to Covid has swapped Australia for Gwrych Castle, up the road in Abergele. He has been foraging almost from birth.

‘My parents were farmers who worked on the land. It would have been very uncommon to not know every plant in that hedgerow or field, and to not know how it’s used and how it tastes. It wasn’t until I went off to school that I discovered that maybe not everyone had that same education.’

This morning he’s out in his waders, knee-deep in the river, picking meadowsweet, a plant that thrives on the edges of old water meadows. ‘We aim to gather one to two kilograms of dried product – [these] plants seem to be between 85 to 98 per cent water. My foraging method is to spend a day walking upstream, but we also see what we can take while maintaining the population of the plant. There’s a strict code of practice and process for gathering: everything has to be submitted to the Soil Association.’

A key source of salicylic acid (an ingredient used in aspirin), meadowsweet is also an astringent and features in Wild Beauty’s cleanser, serum and eye cream. ‘I knew about its medicinal and analgesic use, but its use in skincare was a revelation to me,’ Prideaux says, handing me a leaf to crush; it emits a sweet, marshmallowy/cucumber scent. ‘When this is dehydrating in our office it’s one of the better smelling ones,’ he says. ‘We’re having to pioneer a lot of this. It’s easy to say, “Go and pick nettles,” but it’s working out how you store it, how much you need.’ And he’s encountered some scary moments along the way.

Products from the estate’s Wild Beauty range  Credit: Rhug Estate

‘Each hair on the underside of the nettle leaf is like a preloaded hypodermic with formic acid, that’s what stings. When it’s dehydrating it’s not enough to wilt those hairs off, so the first time we tried it I opened the dehydrator door and breathed in a cloud of these hairs. I was stung all the way through my trachea and lungs. The next time I wore a mask and had gloves and goggles.’ Lord Newborough, who was born on the estate, spent his childhood fishing in these rivers and riding ponies with his two sisters. It sounds idyllic, but from a young age he was under constant pressure to prove himself.

‘My father was very tough on us. I was never good enough really for his expectations,’ he tells me. ‘At the age of three I was pushed off into the middle of the Menai Straits in a rowing boat without the oars, and told to get back using my own initiative – that was to unlatch the floor boarding in the bottom of the boat and use it as a paddle.’

He was brought up with the assumption that, like his father, he would become a farmer. ‘We all had to work on the farm, I was driving a tractor when I was 10.’ But, as he admits, his schooling career ‘was not the best in the world’. After being expelled from one prep school for fighting, frequent canings and running away, he studied at agricultural college before being sent to Australia.

‘My father gave me a one-way ticket and told me not to appear for another 12 months, then to work to buy my own ticket home. On his return he ran an air charter company, and an electronics business manufacturing circuit boards, before overseeing a fishing-protection scheme in Sierra Leone, where he survived three coups. ‘I came out when the guns were blazing and it was not a good place to be. By then my father was in his twilight years, and I felt I ought to come home and help.’

Although he’d eaten organic food for years, it wasn’t until he inherited the estate that Lord Newborough decided to convert it. ‘At the first opportunity we went organic. My wife Sue [they have been married for 32 years and each have a daughter from a previous marriage] had been encouraging me to go down that route, and from that moment farming became interesting.’

Initially though, it was an uphill struggle. Many of the farm team (including the shepherd, and head gamekeeper) had worked for his father for more than 30 years, and had entrenched views. ‘They thought I was completely mad,’ says Lord Newborough, ‘but we took them to look at Highgrove, where there was an inspirational farm manager. Once we actually saw it working there it all made sense and we’ve never looked back.’

The Prince of Wales has been a key figure in Rhug’s organic journey. ‘He came here to see the farm, and his knowledge of organic farming, his concern for the environment, his sustainable credentials and sheer honesty are definitely a part of our inspiration. He just gets it.’ And as a very proficient layer of hedges himself, the Prince was able to pass on his first-hand knowledge. Rhug’s green corridors of hazel, ash, oak and blackthorn have transformed the estate’s wildlife population, and seen the return of hares, hedgehogs, thrushes and meadow pipits. ‘My father tended to pull out hedges and put fences down – we’ve done the opposite basically,’ Lord Newborough says.

Another mentor and friend is Carole Bamford, who founded Daylesford, the organic farm-shop brand, and Bamford, its clothing and beauty spin-off. ‘We’re on a bigger scale than Carole as far as organic farming is concerned,’ says Lord Newborough, ‘but I’ve always admired everything that she does. I admire her thinking behind the packaging, and her sustainable credentials. And I’m using someone who worked on the Bamford skincare range as my consultant.’

The launch of Wild Beauty was initially delayed from spring by Covid, and the pandemic has obviously impacted on the estate, with the retail side of the business most affected. ‘Easter is normally our busiest time – we stood at the gate waiting for a car to go by,’ he says mournfully. ‘We will need every marketing outlet we can have to see us through a very difficult period to come,’ he says as the prospect of Brexit looms. ‘But we’re not dependent on Europe [ 20 per cent of meat goes overseas – Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar] so that’s a safety net. I think the security of being able to export to these affluent markets will be important for the future.’

The Dee Valley in Denbighshire, home to the Rhug estate Credit: Tobias Harvey

He has no worries for his own health in terms of Covid: ‘I get up every morning and exercise, and if you die you die.’ His biggest concern was for the estate’s livestock. ‘The animals have to be fed, and we worried what would happen to them if we got a Covid outbreak among the farmworkers.’ Fortunately it was not something they had to deal with.

Not content to stand still, his fierce work ethic (a legacy of his challenging childhood) means that each day he wakes up and thinks what’s next? So where does the estate go from here? ‘It’s important to keep developing the Wild Beauty range – we’re looking at shampoo, conditioner, sun cream – but also I want to build a global brand, we’re talking to distributors in Japan, the Far East and Middle East.’ What would your father think if he knew you were producing organic skincare? He laughs in disbelief. ‘He’d probably turn in his grave… No, I think he’d be quite proud. I think he would like to see the hive of activity around the place now.’

Lord Newborough with the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall Credit:  Andrew Robinson/Shutterstock

Separately, he is planning to rebuild his beloved bison herd, whose numbers dropped from 70 to 20 after succumbing to malignant catarrhal fever. ‘It was awful to watch and know you couldn’t do anything to stop it.’ There is hope now though, as Lord Newborough has been working with Liverpool University to develop a vaccine, which will be trialled on the Rhug bison.

And he’s keeping a sharp eye on the impact of climate on the farm. ‘We are seeing great change. When I was young the lake always used to be frozen here; it doesn’t freeze in winters any more.’ He’s looking to warmer climes for inspiration, and the idea of growing more Mediterranean crops, such as lavender and grape vines.

‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised 20 years on if we didn’t see a fair degree of acreage down to vines. There are one or two vineyards popping up in Wales now. We’ve got to adapt to change.’

He is determined to leave the farm in the best possible shape. ‘I want to future-proof Rhug so it has an endless life. I want to use the resources that God gave us and I think we have a responsibility to leave something better than what we inherited.’ Somehow I think his father would more than approve. 

Down on the Farm: Rhug estate’s population includes:

  • 43,000 chickens
  • 1,200 turkeys
  • 250 geese
  • 70 sika deer
  • 60 fallow deer
  • 20 bison
  • 800 head of cattle
  • 3,000 salt-marsh lambs
  • 40 beehives
  • 1 chocolate Labrador

For more information, visit: rhugwildbeauty.com