Wales starts to farm walnuts using wool and seashells as climate warms

Ripe walnuts could soon be ready for harvesting in Wales
Ripe walnuts could soon be ready for harvesting in Wales -Credit:Getty Images/iStockphoto

Walnut trees were brought to Britain by the Romans but they've never been grown commercially in Wales. Now a Welsh farming couple are determined to correct this anomaly by producing their own crop of nuts.

Martyn Williams and Alison Harwood aim to start small, planting just 20 walnut trees alongside a similar number of sweet chestnuts. To help the orchard establish, they aim to use mulches such as wool and even shells from their local beach.

As the climate warms, nut farming has become more economically viable and in recent years the niche sector has expanded in England. Wetter winters and summer droughts have also forced some growers to reconsider what kind of crops will be feasible in future.

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However, question marks remain over weather suitability for walnut production in west Wales. To test local growing conditions, Martyn and Alison have chosen varieties matched to their latitude that they feel will suit their Old Castle Farm in Llangain, Carmarthenshire.

For their venture, the couple were awarded a grant from the Farming Connect “Try Out Fund”, a Welsh Government initiative that encourages farming individuals and groups to experiment with new ideas. Martyn suspects his nutty enterprise might not have got off the ground otherwise. “The fund has given us a bit of a free rein, taking the pressure off trialling an enterprise that might or might not be viable,” he said.

In Wales, proposed changes to farm support payments, linked to climate change, are prompting producers to consider alternative types of food crops. As well as encouraging biodiversity on farms, nut trees improve soil health as their roots improve the capacity of soils to absorb water, reducing erosion risks.

China is the world’s biggest producer of walnuts, followed by the US, Iran, and Turkey. For bigger yields, walnut trees prefer a warmer climate, around 25C on average. Being slower-growing, British walnuts are prized for their quality. Sign up now for the latest news on the North Wales Live Whatsapp community

Martyn Williams with one of his sweet chestnut saplings, which he is also growing
Martyn Williams with one of his sweet chestnut saplings, which he is also growing -Credit:Farming Connect

The English name for the nut stems from Germanic languages where “wal” means "foreign". Celtic origins differ – the Welsh name for walnuts is cneuen Ffrengig, or French nuts.

Some farmers graze livestock in nut orchards, or grow secondary crops such as kale. At Old Castle Farm, it’s likely to be five years before the trees produce any quantity of nuts – if any at all.

Establishment is now being monitored and, to give the trees the best chance to thrive, the area around them is being mulched and kept weed-free to maintain soil temperatures and to prevent competition for water and nutrients. Sign up for the North Wales Live newsletter sent twice daily to your inbox

Martyn said the trees are as much a legacy for future generations as the pleasure they bring to the current one. “I love planting trees, they could be around for hundreds of years, long after we have gone,” he said. “I get that farmers need to produce food to feed us – but this will be our legacy.”

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