Mark O’Brien and Liz Vice met whilst working at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust as trainee conservation officers almost 20 years ago. From a farming background, Liz had recently finished a degree in Ecology at the University of East Anglia. Mark was raised in the City of Coventry but from an early age read widely on countryside and wildlife matters and escaped to the countryside at every opportunity to fish or watch wildlife. It was during his time at the Trust that Mark was commissioned by the Hawk and Owl Trust to investigate breeding sites in Warwickshire for the barn owl which was becoming a rare sight in the county at that time. Mark gave talks and led wildlife walks and in their spare time they managed a privately owned Trust reserve, all the while dreaming of having their own nature reserve one day.
Around this time they became friends with Dr Humphrey Smith a senior lecturer in Ecology at Coventry University; he also served on the Conservation Committee of the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. Mark was considering studying for a degree and asked Humphrey’s advice. Knowing their background and that they had been trying for some time to buy a small woodland in Warwickshire for wildlife conservation, Humphrey came up with an amazing alternative to student life for Mark. He would buy a wood for Mark and Liz to manage principally for wildlife conservation but which also had the potential to provide them both with an income. It would be up to Mark and Liz to make it all work. Their dreams were about to come true!
Having searched in Warwickshire for suitable woodland without success they eventually came across Mabley and Siege Woods (70 acres) for sale on the Woolhope Dome in Herefordshire. This is a unique area for its wildlife and landscape, situated in a county they had always been drawn, to visiting whenever they could. Humphrey bought the woods in 1999. Mark lived in a caravan on site at first, starting the restoration of neglected hazel coppice and the felling of conifers on ancient woodland sites. Meanwhile, Liz commuted back and forth from Warwickshire continuing her work at a research institute near Warwick whilst overseeing the restoration and sale of their house in Kenilworth. Soon they were both able to work full-time in the woods and moved to a house in the village of Woolhope.
The purchase of a 10 acre area of wood pasture next to Mabley Wood in 2003 allowed them to buy their first pedigree Longhorn cattle, a traditional breed ideal for conservation grazing, being docile, hardy and able to thrive on unimproved grassland. Longhorns also provide succulent beef and are of course very good looking!
By 2005 they had managed to jointly purchase a further 60 acres of parkland and grassland close to Woolhope and to acquire their first pedigree Wiltshire Horn sheep, again a hardy breed, producing excellent lamb and mutton from even poor pasture and their hairy coat means they don’t require shearing!
What we do
Mabley Farm now consists of around 160 acres of woodland, parkland and grassland located close to the village of Woolhope in the northern part of the Wye Valley AONB. Our traditional Longhorn cattle and Wiltshire Horn sheep also graze Wessington Pasture (a Herefordshire Nature Trust reserve), two small privately owned wildflower meadows (Winslow Mill and Orchid Bank SSSI) and an area of common land. We joined the Higher Level Stewardship scheme in 2006 and became certified as organic by the Soil Association soon after.
Our ethos is to promote environmental education to all ages, using the land as an open air classroom for interested groups, schools, colleges and organizations. We focus on sustainable management, wildlife, history, archaeology and habitat creation and restoration.
The pedigree cattle and sheep are sold as quality breeding livestock. Our organic Longhorn beef from animals raised exclusively on an extensive grassland system has supplied London restaurants, but we prefer to sell our beef and lamb locally to selected pubs and restaurants and also through our box scheme to local individual customers.
Wild fallow deer are also harvested for venison as excessive deer populations have a detrimental effect by altering the structure of habitats.
We make our own hay to feed the cattle and sheep in winter as part of a sustainable system
The woodlands supply us with firewood, charcoal and timber for fencing, gate posts, the construction industry and restoration of buildings. Coppice plots in Mabley Wood SSSI provide hazel for making hurdles and stakes and binders for hedgelaying. These operations result in an abundance and diversity of wildlife on the farm.
We would like to acquire rare breed goats. These could help with scrub and grassland management, but we would particularly like to keep them in order to help increase numbers of these native breed farm animals.
We would like to keep rare breed pigs in our woodland to help restore the natural vegetation on planted ancient woodland sites (PAWS) such as Siege Wood.
Mark intends to start showing his Longhorn cattle. He is beginning to halter train three calves with a view to showing one of them. Showing animals helps to promote the breed and if we do well, should add value to the herd.
We would like to do more to encourage people of all ages to visit Mabley Farm and the Woolhope Dome. This would benefit the local economy as well as our own project. We particularly wish to encourage walkers and cyclists to this part of the Wye Valley AONB (there are many footpaths in the area and our woodland borders the Wye Valley Walk).