‘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.’