The Penpont Project Needs Your Support

Action for Conservation (AFC) is a pioneering youth engagement charity working with young people across England and Wales to take action for nature. AFC is partnering with the Penpont Estate located within the Brecon Beacons National Park on a daring youth-led nature restoration initiative. This week, ‘The Penpont Project’ was selected as one of nine UK-based projects – and the only one in Wales – shortlisted for Ecover’s ‘Fertilise the Future’ fund.

The Penpont Project is run by a Youth Leadership Group of twenty 14-18-year olds from diverse backgrounds. Working in partnership with farmers, the landowners, conservationists and local stakeholders, they are moving forwards with an ambitious habitats and ecosystem restoration plan, integrating regenerative farming and forestry approaches to provide a healthy support system for people, biodiversity and agriculture.

Forrest Hogg, based at Penpont, is helping guide the Project, and he spoke to us about his experiences so far.

Penpont Woodlands - The Penpont Project
The ancient woodlands at Penpont

What inspired the Project?

The project is really a coming together of several ideas. The first is urgent. Ecological and climate breakdown is upon us. Wales has suffered significant biodiversity declines like much of the UK and these statistics can feel pretty overwhelming at times. The key is not to lose hope, and to take action instead. This project aims to bring about real and meaningful grassroots action for nature.

The second is young people. I’ve followed Action for Conservation’s work closely since they started out back in 2014 and I’ve helped out on a few of their programmes including delivering some conservation workshops in my old secondary school in Brecon. It was incredible to witness how much young people have to offer in terms of bringing fresh energy and perspective to a sector that desperately needs help and creativity. We live in a beautiful part of the world, and it needs understanding, protecting and in many cases nurturing back to life. So, it is wonderful to now be working with Action for Conservation to ensure the Penpont Project has a big focus on education whilst also giving our future leaders a say in how we are going to tackle society’s greatest challenges.

Tell us about Ecover’s Fertilise the Future Fund and how we can help.

Excitingly, our project has been shortlisted for Ecover’s Fertilise the Future fund! We are one of nine UK-based nature restoration initiatives in competition for £180,000. We are the only project in Wales and the only project that is putting Young People truly into the driving seat. In fact, the Youth Leadership Group’s Finance & Strategy Subcommittee actually wrote the first stage application to Ecover and participated in the interview with the judges – so all the credit must go to them!

This money will enable us to do lots of things. It will support the Youth Leadership Group’s ongoing research and on-site visits to the Penpont Estate. It will also support innovative regenerative farming and forestry practices across the site, such as establishing a tree nursery to begin germinating trees for the future. We will be able to recruit a Youth & Community Engagement Officer to ensure that other local young people can experience and contribute to our goals and begin the first steps towards growing Penpont into an educational hub and resource. Above all, we will protect and enhance biodiversity for future generations.

We need your vote. Between now and the 6th December, please comment with our hashtag #Action4ConservxEcover on Action for Conservation’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds. We need your comments with our # – ‘likes’ don’t count!

Follow Action For Conservation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Read more about the Penpont Project here.

What are your personal connections to Penpont?

My family first moved to Penpont in 1992 when I was very little. My childhood memories are dominated by den building, tree climbing and riding down hills on wheeled-contraptions. It was, in many ways, a dream childhood — I’m forever grateful for having had the opportunity to grow up here. I chose a career in conservation that has taken me to some magical lands – Madagascar, Russia, Congo – and each time I return to Wales I discover a renewed appreciation for this land.

Standing around the oak - The Penpont Project
2. The Youth Leadership Group gather around the fallen Oak – one of the projects symbols

Penpont has been a wonderful place of organic progression. My father Gavin has brought back the woodlands and forestry blocks into management for both biodiversity and production. Penpont is now heated sustainably by its own wood fuel. My mother, Vina, has revived the walled garden opening a farmshop in the process. Tourists from all around the world come to Penpont to camp in the summer or stay in the group accommodation. I’m excited by the future too – we need more initiatives like the Penpont Project to spring up and start to reanimate both our imaginations and landscapes.

How are you going to find the right balance between nature conservation and agriculture on the Project site?

Many emerging conservation initiatives across Europe, some operating under the guise of ‘rewilding’, are in effect land-sparing initiatives. Here in our context in south Wales, we need conservation initiatives to help drive a rural transition away from unsustainable activities towards regeneration and resilience. At Penpont, we see food production as a key component to a diverse and healthy land use model that honours our strong and deep-rooted hill farming traditions. Otherwise we are simply displacing our food security and land-based issues to elsewhere on the planet. Nearly 90% of Wales land surface is in some form of agricultural production – it is our farmers who hold the keys to unlocking a greener and more prosperous future.

At Penpont, we want to implement a nature restoration scheme that aligns more closely with a land sharing philosophy; to reimagine our agricultural landscapes as places where people and wildlife co-habit on nature’s terms. Through interweaving, for example, regenerative grazing, silvopastoral agroforestry and continuous cover forestry, operating alongside habitat restoration and other conservation measures, we hope to embed this philosophy whilst restoring natural processes and biodiversity to the land and water.

What does it mean to the young people to be involved in such a ground-breaking project?

I can’t speak for them, but from spending a lot of time with them over the course of a year I can say that they are a joy to work with! They are all passionate about the environment, hard-working, and through our workshops, discussions and actions on the land they have developed a strong sense of connection to Penpont and the people who live here. I’m amazed too by how they are navigating some of the more complex and sensitive challenges any initiative like this could face. I think it means a lot to them. This quote from Serena, aged 17 and member of the group, speaks volumes:

“The Penpont Project is important to me because it empowers young people to work intergenerationally and collaboratively on a very hopeful initiative. I believe that the premise behind this project is already powerful, in its originality and because it brings diverse perspectives and experiences to decision-making in conservation.”

Serena, Aged 17, Youth Leadership Group
Planting oak saplings - The Penpont Project
The Youth Leadership Group planting oak saplings

How are the Youth Leadership Group actually making decisions?

The Youth Leadership Group come onto site four times a year to work with the landowners, farmers and local community members. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant we have had to think outside the box and use a host of online tools to bring them here virtually. At these meetings, the entire project team makes key decisions about what should be done next. All decisions are made by consensus bringing in expert advisors where necessary. To best inform our decisions, the young people are taking the time to learn about the history, including oral histories, of the land here. They are meeting with older generations and appreciating how the land has transformed and what has driven these changes. Yes, there is a story of degradation, but also there is a deeper story of connection and of love for the land. Penpont literally means ‘head of the bridge’ in Welsh, and sometimes I like to think of the young people acting as this bridge – bringing the old ways into the 21st century.

I’d like to quote Deep, aged 16 from London, here who talks about his work in the different Youth Leadership Group subcommittees:

“I’ve taken part in the research & restoration, communications and finance & strategy subcommittees. I’ve particularly found researching different restoration projects interesting because it demonstrates the scope of restoration opportunities that we could consider. I’ve really been impressed by the togetherness and open mindedness of all the stakeholders, despite the potential for conflict of interest because their livelihoods depend on that. This is key if the project is able to make significant strides in the coming years.”

Deep, Aged 16, Youth Leadership Group

How are you involving the local community?

Penpont is home to a handful of tenanted farms who form the backbone of the valley’s community. Whilst some have been taken on recently, some have been farmed for generations. The Davies family are equal partners in the Project and we are working together to transition towards a more nature-friendly and regenerative farming scheme. We are also involving local school groups and wildlife enthusiasts in our biodiversity monitoring scheme and we’re in the midst of recruiting some local young people to join the existing Youth Leadership Group. We want more people, from all walks of life, to benefit from Penpont.

Out on the hill at the Penpont Project
In September, community members and project leaders from across the UK came to Penpont to share experiences

Action for Conservation needs your vote. Between now and the 6th December, please comment with our hashtag #Action4ConservxEcover on Action for Conservation’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds. We need your comments with our # – ‘likes’ don’t count!

Follow Action For Conservation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Read more about the Penpont Project here.

Want to stay at Penpont? You can book their Courtyard Wing for groups of up to 17 on Group Accommodation.

Written by Ed Maughan

Date: 01st December 2020

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