“Bristol’s last working farm”: A farm for the future

  • 27.09.2023
  • article
  • Biodiversity
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • People
  • Small Farms
  • Julie Baber

Twice a month, Catherine Withers heads to market two miles away in Bedminster, to sell her wares, much as her family have done for generations. Once they would have been joined by many other families whose produce fed the local population and whose farms were within Bristol’s city boundary. A hundred years ago, according to Catherine, there were 28 farms in South Bristol alone, several of them tenanted by her ancestors. Today hers, Yew Tree Farm, on the western bounds, is the last to remain as a working farm.

“Bristol’s last working farm”

It is an unusual USP and not one that anyone would have chosen, but for the fact that Yew Tree Farm is fighting for its life. The words are simple but loaded with emotion and imply that it belongs, not just to the farmer, but to the city – that its loss would be a loss to all.

I visited on a warm autumnal day and was taken, as always, by how beautiful it is. The cluster of buildings that make up the house, adjacent cottage and barns are of the soft white lias (a type of limestone) and weathered red tiles that are traditional to the area. There are low stone walls, yellow roses and chickens in the back garden. Sitting in the front garden to discuss the latest successes and threats, our conversation is interrupted often. Sometimes this is by Catherine, pointing out the swallows still to make their journey south, (“We had 28 babies this year,” she says), or the red admiral butterfly sunning itself on the path. Sometimes it is by phone calls or messages. Sometimes it is by a variety of people coming and going. One of the latter was a lady called Patricia, who had walked down the lane and into the yard because “I wanted to see the place for myself.” She had been following the campaign to save Yew Tree Farm and had written to all the relevant players, she said. “That happens every day,” said Catherine, after Patricia’s departure, “so many people care about the farm.”

Along with many other farms in Bristol, Yew Tree was once part of the vast estate owned since the 16thcentury by the Smyth family of Ashton Court. Typical of the extended tenant families, the Withers moved from one farm to another on the estate as their needs dictated. Esme Smyth died in 1946 and the estate was broken up and sold off soon after. Blocked from buying their own farms, most tenants had little recourse, with the land passing into the hands of investment and building companies. Hundreds of acres of Bristol farmland, with its meadows and hedges and resident wildlife, was swept away by the concrete sprawl and the ambitions of its new owners. In 1949, Yew Tree Farm was sold to Newcombe Estates Ltd, a London-based investment company. Catherine’s grandparents became the tenants in 1967 and they later managed to buy the house and outbuildings and 28 of the 61 acres that made up the farm.

Although they were not officially tenants of more than half the land, they continued to farm all 61 acres, grazing 20 acres of pasture that had passed into the hands of Bristol City Council, and managing the remaining 13 acres as a hay meadow by sub-letting it from the tenant of the company that had made the original purchase.

A refuge for wildlife and a haven for locals

Yew Tree went on much as it always had, while the destruction of all but a few green pockets of city land went on unabated. Nobody set out to become a refuge for the local wildlife – sharing land with the resident flora and fauna is just a given for most traditional farmers. However, that the farm was, and continues to be, a biodiversity hotspot is borne out by the accolades showered upon it in recent years. The award of SNCI (Site of Nature Conservation Interest) for the whole farm and the discovery of an insect previously unknown to science, are a testament to the sympathetic way in which the farm is managed.

While the production of beef, pork and vegetables are the primary functions of Yew Tree Farm, it has become something of a haven for local people too. Five part-time employees turn produce into scotch eggs, sausage rolls, jars of chutney and jam and the like, to be sold direct or from the local market. Most customers are drawn from the surrounding working-class housing estates that are within walking distance and are welcomed onto the farm for Saturday morning bacon baps and mugs of tea, while catching up on the latest news of pet sheep, Julia and Danica, or hearing how the campaign to save an ancient hedgerow is going.

Campaigning, as well as farming, has become something of a way of life for Catherine Withers. It may have started as a personal fight against the dual threats of house building and the expansion of a nearby cemetery, but it has become so much more than that.

Her energy and positivity are infectious and inspiring, even as this is tempered by the inevitable stress of a long running campaign, coupled with a simmering anger. She believes that vulnerability is not something to be ashamed of and that it is okay to need and accept help. It is an attitude that undoubtedly aides the success of a social prescribing programme, instigated by the Sustainable Food Trust, that gives local people with health and wellbeing needs an opportunity to immerse themselves in day-to-day activities on a proper working farm.

Catherine Withers explains the honey extraction process to green social prescribing participants
Catherine Withers explains the honey extraction process to green social prescribing participants


Catherine knows that the fight to protect her beloved farm is part of a bigger campaign for urban green spaces and the return of localised food production. Along with being a trustee of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE ) and the chair of Bedminster Down and Upland Society, she spearheads a group that seeks out brownfield sites for potential housing developments to counter claims that building on greenfield sites is a necessity. Of the horse culture responsible for the overgrazing of remnants of land on the edge of housing estates, Catherine believes the teenage owners need support rather than eviction – “I was that girl with a pony, they are my people.”

The constant threat of loss

This year, for the first time in probably hundreds of years, hay has not been made on Yew Tree Farm’s 13 acres of meadow. Newcombe Estates Ltd has evicted Catherine, in favour of an option with Redrow to build 200 houses, despite an intense local campaign supported by councilors from all four political parties. When I asked her what this means for the farm she said bluntly, “an empty hay barn”. Then, with certainty, “They’ll never be able to build on it.”

While Catherine is confident that the protection of her cherished hay meadow by the SNCI, the newly discovered insect and the greenbelt, can ward off the intentions of Newcombe and Redrow, (although she does concede that “protected land is not given the same precedent as protected buildings”), the situation on the east flank is somewhat more complicated.

The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, is keen to act on a 10-year plan to expand South Bristol Crematorium and Cemetery, citing the need for more burial space for Bristol’s expanding population. In his blog, he speaks in glowing terms of the generous grazing agreement offered to Yew Tree Farm, the small percentage of land to be taken for the new plots and the infrastructure that will support the expansion and that will, in his view, protect the biodiversity of the area.

“What do they think I’m going to do with the cattle while all this work is carried out? Put them in a drawer?”

Catherine is tired and exasperated. She points out again that the entire site is protected by the SNCI and that one of the conditions of its designation is that it has to be grazed by cattle. She worries about the potential pollution of the cattle’s water source by embalming fluids and the solvents from MDF coffins. She doesn’t think anyone else would want to graze land that is crisscrossed by public footpaths and sees up to 150 dog walkers a day. Her own cattle have, through many generations, grown used to such numbers and take it all in their stride. They are as rooted at Yew Tree as Catherine is.

Much has been said about Yew Tree Farm in both the local and national media and it appears to have become something of a political football. To Catherine and her many supporters there is far more at stake than a few bruised egos and the furthering of careers.

Next spring there will be swallows winging their way back across continents to feast on insects that live with cattle that graze on pasture that has never been ploughed.

It is a gem that Bristol should cherish, and a model of how future farming should be. That it has survived into the 21st century with its abundant wildlife intact is remarkable. That it could be lost now is unthinkable.

To find out how you can show your support for Catherine and the Yew Tree Farm community, visit yewtreefarmbristol.com/saveourfarm.

Landscape photos courtesy of Yew Tree Farm website.

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