By Claire Taylor

Leaving a legacy of livestock and land working together was one of the selling points of the recent BBC series of ‘This Farming Life,’ which gave viewers a rare insight in to beginning life on a working croft and exploring the challenges and rewards it can bring.

New entrants into crofting, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer, have turned a dream of working hand in glove with the land into a reality – demonstrating the variety of opportunities which can be explored in small scale farming and how working with nature can bring both environmental and economic benefits to their business.

Two years since they moved in to Lynbreck croft, in the Cairngorms, the crofting couple have grown their livestock numbers, planted thousands of trees, expanded income opportunities and set ambitious plans for the future.

The crofting way of life is far removed from large-scale farming production and Lynbreck has just over 150 acres of land to speak of. Since the cameras left over a year ago, Lynn and Sandra have upped their livestock numbers and now look after nine Highland cattle, 70 laying hens, 12 pigs in any one year and six beehives.

When they first planned a new way of life together, they had somewhat smaller ambitions, but have embraced the opportunities which have come up and are now committed to sharing their story with the public and encouraging people to reconnect with nature and food production.

The SF caught up with the crofters to hear more about how they got involved with Lynbreck and their overall vision for embracing nature friendly farming; as well as looking at some of the standout moments from the BBC series and what plans they have for the future.

Lynn explained how they both got involved with running their croft and the challenges which came with such an ambitious venture: “It was a complete accident! We were both living in the south of England working as rangers for the National Trust and shared this pipe dream of living closer to the land and having more connection to the food we eat.

“We decided to quit our jobs and move to the south of Scotland for a couple of years where we used it as a temporary base to look for a small place with around 5-10 acres. That’s when we first read up on the history of crofting and decided the whole ethos matched exactly what we wanted.

“Sandra came across Lynbreck for sale, but it was out of our budget. Then six months later, we saw it was still up for sale and couldn’t help going for a visit and instantly fell in love with it and the rest was history.”

They had originally planned to take a step back from their busy lives, but buying Lynbreck escalated plans towards building a small-scale viable farming unit and they soon realised what a huge task they had ahead of them.

Lynn continued: “Taking on Lynbreck was 100 times harder than we had imagined and when we first moved in, we had a huge job bringing it back to life after 30 years of inaction. Not only was it a huge a huge financial stretch but we had so much to learn, not just in terms of farming but in terms of running a business.

"There was also the fact that we had family in Ireland and Switzerland and friends in England, and here we were in a new place with a whole new community to get to know.

“Growing our own food has always been our dream and we grow a lot of our own vegetables and herbs in our kitchen garden and we eat all our own meat reared on the croft. Our desire to work with the land and grow and raise our own food stems from our background in conservation and ecology. We have always viewed nature as a wonderful thing and something that as a society we are not connected to as we should be.

"We have seen the impact of a negative relationship with nature and have always been determined to leave the land in better condition than when we found it. This mantra has driven a lot of the work we do here,” she said.

A move to regenerative agriculture:

Lynn and Sandra are part of a regenerative agriculture movement where they work closely with the land through practices such as rotational grazing to restore soil health and improve the surrounding environment.

“We see ourselves as nature friendly farmers and graze our animals in the natural way that they would if they were out in the wild. Animals would traditionally move in a bunch to get away from predators, moving to search for food and avoiding where they have been to the toilet.

"We want to tap into those instincts and add our own management style on top. Through rotational grazing, we use an electric fence as the 'predator' and move them to new ground to ensure that grazed ground has as long a period of rest as possible and that the animals aren’t drawing on the root reserve.

“Our pigs love to snuffle and break up the dominant thick grasses with their snout which we see as a regenerative tool. Having more acres makes this easier for us as we can afford to leave areas to recover for longer periods of time. If you had a smaller acreage, cattle might not be the best option, so you have to adjust your animals accordingly,” she advised.

BBC filming:

Lynn and Sandra invited the BBC cameras on to their croft during the third series of This Farming Life where we saw them right at the start of their new way of life.

“It was a terrifying experience to begin with, as we were doing everything for the first time, and we were doing it in front of cameras. I imagine if they were to follow us this year, we would have a lot more confidence and be more direct in what we are doing.

“We were very lucky to have such a fantastic crew working with us and became good friends during the months that they visited. They probably saw us more than a lot of our friends during what was a very busy time. They saw our highs and our lows, and were hugely supportive, which made it very easy for us to work with them.

“Looking back at the whole series, we are really happy with how they captured our story. It was a difficult year and despite all the stresses and anxieties we faced, the series reminded us that we laughed a lot and had some really good moments along the way. The series also was really important in advocating a positive story for small scale ecological farming and showing what can be possible."

One of the big challenges they faced during the summer of 2018 was drought. During filming, we see them facing extreme water shortages without mains water connection as they struggled to provide enough water for their livestock.

Lynn reflected on what it was like during that summer and what improvements they have made since: “We went months without water when our well ran dry and looking back at the series is a reminder of what a difficult time that was for us both.

"Sandra and I had to make our own sacrifices by not taking showers in the croft, to ensure there was enough water available for the animals to drink. Many people have been in touch about that storyline and we are pleased to say we are taking extra measures to ensure we don’t get into the same difficult situation again.

“We had a water expert come out to the croft, who identified some available areas of water on our land, including a spring that had kept running through the summer. We put a new well on top of that and now have a system we can use both for the livestock and us.

"We also had a new barn built last year and put a massive water butt in that which holds around 5500 litres, so we will always have a back-up plan if a similar situation arises in the future.”

During the programme we saw Lynn and Sandra set up an egg club, delivering boxes to members in the surrounding vicinity. Lynn explained that a year on from when the cameras left, the club has grown from strength to strength.

“When the series ended, we had 12 subscriptions to our egg club and now we have 39, mostly from Grantown on Spey, which is five miles away and we have five members in Tomintoul, which is nine miles away. We deliver twice a week and try to do most of it by bike, but it does get harder in the winter with the changing weather.

"Egg club has been a really great venture in terms of a business model as we have a guaranteed market for our eggs and know what to produce. We ask people to sign up for a monthly or annual subscription and use it as a way to educate people on how we farm.

“People always ask questions about our mobile egg houses and why we have chosen to feed the hens organic feed. A lot of people have no idea that not all eggs are the same size or colour.

"We do have a massive waiting list which we are holding at bay for now, but will slowly look to accommodate. We have, however, advanced since the programme and have an egg basket to collect the eggs, but sometimes Sandra still puts them in her pockets,” Lynn laughed.

Tree planting:

The pair are passionate about combining trees alongside their livestock and since the end of the series have upped their planted acreage and are exploring new and innovative ways in which certain trees can provide extra benefits on their croft.

“We are now sitting at just under 30,000 trees and around 18,000 of these are planted on hill ground, which wouldn’t give us much return in terms of grazing. There are multiple reasons behind our vision with the trees and part of that is that we are conscious of the impact of climate change but equally we need the trees for shade in the summer for our livestock and shelter in the winter.

“We did a lot of our planting with support from a Scottish forestry grant which allowed us to pay ourselves to do the work. We have had to shut off the area for 20 years, but this is a key part of our business plan moving forward. It is a short term hit for a longer-term gain which ticks all the boxes for biodiversity and nature.”

Last winter they planted 5000 trees as part of an agroforestry project, which involved planting palatable trees for livestock to use as fodder.

Lynn continued: “We have been looking at methods which are used in some parts of central Europe where people cut trees and branches and bundle them up to be dried, then add them in as part of winter fodder. Trees have a lot of medicinal benefits and species, such as willow, produce salicylic acid which is a type of aspirin and provides animals with pain relief.

“We see this as a real positive from an animal welfare point of view but also from a business point of view as we don’t want the animals to be in pain as it risks them losing condition.

"Currently, we don’t have the space to cut our own hay, so have been looking for ways to provide more for the animals and have partnered with the Woodland Trust to see how this might new project develops. It is exciting to use these old traditional methods and apply them to a 21st century context.”

They admitted that this method may not suit larger production but explained that it does add strength to the argument for small scale farming.

Future plans:

Despite a daunting start to their crofting life, Lynn and Sandra are extremely happy they took up the challenge and have exciting and ambitious plans for the future.

“We have never lived a life that is so hard financially, physically and emotionally – we have poured everything we have in to turning this croft around but don’t regret any of it," said Lynn.

"Poor mental health in the industry is a growing concern and people are talking more and more about the challenges facing farmers and increasing suicide rates. We are careful to constantly re-evaluate what we are doing and if it all gets too stressful, we remind ourselves to stake a step back and remember what we have achieved and that we have the basics to get by when times are tough.

“Since the series aired, we have had huge interest in our way of life and although we stick by the mantra of supplying our food locally, it doesn’t stop people from travelling from far and wide to purchase produce from the croft.

“One of the next projects we are working on is adding value to our produce. We recently installed a butchery and have started to process mush of our own meat.

“We are never going to carry loads of livestock, but we want to focus on maximising what we get out of them and meat is perfect to turn in to higher value products. This August we set up the ‘Little Mountain Meat Club’ which like the egg club is subscription-based.

"We now have 43 people who are signed up for a year and once a month they get a box of different cuts ranging from cured smoked bacon to smoked highland beef or artisan sausages.”

Lynn and Sandra also have plans to turn a derelict croft on their land into a holiday let and market it as a place people can come to, to reconnect with landscape and nature. Since the BBC series aired, they have also been inundated with interest in croft tours and hope to expand this side of their business.

“We really want to do more croft tours and already have people travelling from far afield who want to share in our story, and it is a great way to encourage people to look at getting into small scale farming and regenerative agriculture," she said.

"We are proud of what we have been able to do with our croft in such a short space of time and hope that our journey will encourage others to look at growing their own food and working with the landscape in a way that will sustain it for future generations to come,” she concluded.