Two of his brothers, Ralph and Joseph, are already household names, but Jake Fiennes is an unlikely star of British farming. On an estate in Norfolk, he's rewriting the post-Brexit rule book: how to work the land and protect the environment at the same time. Robert Crampton meets him.
They might, at first glance, make a slightly unusual couple, the two chaps I'm sharing a car with up here in the picturesque back lanes of north Norfolk, a mile or so inland from the famed beach at Holkham. The man in the back owns pretty much everything as far as the eye can see. Thomas Coke ("Call me Tom, it's easier"), 54, is the eighth Earl of Leicester, which means he owns the Holkham Estate – more than 25,000 acres – and lives in the splendid Palladian mansion in its midst. Following Eton, an art-history degree at Manchester University and six years in the Scots Guards, Tom came back home to Norfolk to help run the estate. He's been in charge since his succession to the earldom in 2015.
The other man, the driver, has been at Holkham for only 16 months. He is Jake Fiennes, 49, brother to the actors Joseph, his twin, and Ralph. Fiennes is conservation manager of the estate, charged with promoting biodiversity, carbon sequestration and general all-round sustainability and the phasing out of all pesticides – with the possible exception of herbicide – and artificial nitrogen across these broad acres. If ruddy-faced Tom is dressed as your typical country gent in his sports jacket, checked shirt, moleskin trousers and boots, Fiennes is rather less well camouflaged in a black bomber jacket, urban pallor (despite most of his life spent in the open air) and a hairstyle that looks like the last word in hipster chic but is actually the legacy of alopecia some years ago, mostly shaved but with some long grey strands swept back in the middle, like a back to front combover only a lot more appealing. Fiennes is becoming as big a star in his field as his brothers are in theirs. In that respect he looks the part too, only you'd imagine he was a DJ rather than a guy who spends his days tramping across muddy fields to check on soil compaction and how many worms a spade will turn up.
They're a bit of a double act, Fiennes and his boss, finishing each other's sentences as they enthuse over the changes they are making to the way this corner of England is farmed. They are on a mission to change the way we farm. "I'm a contrarian, he's a disrupter," says the earl. And disruption is very much coming to British agriculture, one way or another. Following Brexit, British farming has reached a turning point – as Minette Batters, the leader of the National Farmers Union says, "It is a reset moment." The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, under which farmers are paid a subsidy through the Basic Payment Scheme, will be phased out. In its place will come the provisions of the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill, currently making their way through parliament, framed by Michael Gove when he was environment secretary. Instead of the brute so many pounds per hectare of the CAP, farmers will be incentivised to provide public goods, of which food production will only be one.
The key point about what Lord Leicester and his conservation manager are trying to do here is that while they are certainly moving away from the traditional intensive agribusiness model of the past half century or so, they are categorically not embarking on the process known as rewilding, so beloved of the scriptwriters on The Archers. They are in the business of farming: food production, as opposed to providing a pretty environment for visitors to enjoy. The estate does contain a 9,000-acre nature reserve, wetlands and woods along the coast, but its bulk consists of a 4,571-acre home farm and another 15,000 acres farmed by about 30 tenants. The big house cannot tell these tenants what to grow or how to grow it. It can, however, seek to influence them by showing that the new methods being employed on the home farm will bring better results, especially from the new subsidy system about to come into place.
The home farm is cultivated on a six-course rotation, which is two rotations more than the earl's illustrious forebear, the first earl, also Thomas Coke (it is pronounced Cook), introduced in his famous "Norfolk system" in the early 19th century. That system, adopted nationally, increased yields so greatly that it became one of the triggers of the industrial revolution, freeing up former farm workers to head for the factories, mines and mills instead. So this estate has previous in terms of its lasting influence on British agriculture.
Fiennes parks his Ford Ranger on the "headlands" of a 12-acre field. The headlands are the edge of the field. This one, rather than being ploughed right up to the hedgerow, has a 6m strip of what by the summer will be hay. Intuitively, you would think it most economic to maximise the land under cultivation. Not so, says Fiennes.
"We're using shiny, modern kit – 36m spray booms, 35ft header combine – in a medieval landscape. I can look at my yield map and see the headlands yield the least, mostly because of compaction, vehicles turning round and compressing the soil."
"The average wheat yield is about 8.5 tonnes per hectare," adds the earl, before taking issue with the word "medieval".
"It's not medieval. It's an enclosure landscape, late 18th, early 19th century." Back to the point, he adds, "But the yield might be only four tonnes at the edges. The guy is going to spend most of his time turning his equipment around. That's not economic."
'I'm a contrarian, he's a distrupter,' says his boss, the eighth Earl of Leicester.
So Fiennes has been implementing "field realignment" – taking out the edges and the awkward corners, drilling hay there instead, adding wildflowers. "The science is out there to suggest biodiversity also increases yields.
"It's about multifunctional farming," he goes on. "The hedges and floristic margins and cover crops in winter attract wildlife and pollinators and capture carbon." (He's obsessed by hedges, storing pictures of them on his phone.) He shows me what will by summer be a field of barley. "North Norfolk barley is to beer what pinot noir is to champagne. We've got one million visitors coming down this road to the nature reserve every summer. If they look at that farmer's land and see its bursting with flowers and the hedges are full of wildlife, the public perception is actually he's a good farmer, so I will pull into his shop and buy a beer from him." And it looks nicer, I say. "And it looks nicer, yes. It's enhancing his business."
Fiennes' Christmas present to his boss when he first arrived was a copy of Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown, who farms near Bismarck in North Dakota. Brown's book has become a bible for those involved in regenerative agriculture. It's all about, well, soil, and soil health. Brown advocates as little disturbance to soil as possible, keeping it covered all year round, crop diversity, a root system to feed the soil, and the integration of animals with the soil. Large-scale American – and British – agriculture has been steadily ignoring these rules for half a century or more. Fiennes is reintroducing them here. "Farming in Europe has reached a yield plateau," says the earl. "The only way for farmers to be able even to maintain that plateau, let alone go up, is by throwing more nitrogen in." This nitrogen, paid for in part by subsidy, leaches into the nation's water courses and has to be extracted at great expense before that water becomes potable again. "You've been paid to pollute the land," I say. "Well, not you personally, but … It's been government policy."
Fiennes parks up again, jumps out and fishes a spade out of the boot. "Now this," he says, striding through a gap in the hedge and into a muddy field, "is a tenant who has yet to embrace changes. He's farming up to the bottom of his hedges. He probably doesn't realise his headlands are losing him money."
"The government will pay £500-plus a hectare to create a 'floristically enhanced margin'," says Lord Leicester.
"The soil here is dead," Fiennes says, with no little feeling. "It's lacklustre. There's water pooling, compaction, mildew. Too many artificial inputs. Systematic prophylactic spraying." The destoning of the fields won't have helped either. "But consumers want, or supermarkets think they want, perfectly shaped potatoes, so the stones have to come out so they don't impact the crop." Fiennes wields his spade. "We should go to the middle, just to be fair," says the boss. Off we tramp, skirting the deep puddles in the tractor ruts.
"I've been reading the farming press most of my life," says Lord Leicester, "and it amazes me we only started talking about soil in 2015." "First problem," grunts Fiennes, his tone leaving no doubt as to his opinion of this particular tenant's husbandry ability, "is it's hard to get the spade in at all." Nonetheless, he succeeds and dumps a shovelful down for inspection. It looks like something you might dig up in a city park. "It's supposed to be loamy. There's no smell to it. There's only one tiny worm. It's lifeless. This is a pesticide junkie."
The trouble with pesticides is they are a short-term solution. Their continued use will catch up with you. "This is a stark contrast to Holkham. We've cut the amount of artificial nitrogen on our potatoes by 10 per cent for the past two years and the yield has been fine."
Holkham is fortunate – some would say it can afford to experiment – in that 50 per cent of its income comes from tourism. Some farmers are not nearly as diversified in their income streams. "Some farmers have become subsidy junkies," says Fiennes. "Defra statistics show that 60 per cent of British farms are reliant on subsidies. I believe it's higher." So, some farmers will go under when the current subsidies are withdrawn? "Yes." Fiennes voted remain at the referendum but, even so, is delighted to be free of the shackles of the CAP. Lord Leicester was a keen Brexiteer. "Some might say that's turkeys voting for Christmas, and yes we'll get hit by the reduction in the basic payment scheme, but we'll make it up."
Back nearer Holkham Hall, Fiennes pulls onto another verge, retrieves his spade once more. "When I arrived, Holkham was already doing cover cropping after the harvest. I said, 'Let's ramp it up.' You can feel the difference as you walk across it. The spade goes in easily. There's worms, roots, insects …" Shouldn't farmers have known about this sort of system before? "Our grandfathers knew it, but it'd been lost. The median age of a British farmer is 60. After 47 years of the CAP, that's what British farming was. It had lost touch. We used to have fallows and grasslands. Ninety seven per cent of our hay meadows have been lost since 1970.
"We used to mix arable and livestock. That changed into monoculture. The 21st-century farmer will be a mixed farmer, like it was 80 years ago, spreading the risk, producing food, but also sequestering carbon and improving biodiversity and being paid for it."
It's assumed my brothers and I were entitled. That's not true.
I mention that where I live, in east London, artisanal this and micro that and organic the other is all the rage. Maybe some of those 30-year-old hipsters ought to be thinking of getting back to the land, rather than leaving it to a bunch of 60-year-olds habituated to the CAP life-support machine. "It's a big opportunity to get new entrants into agriculture," agrees Lord Leicester.
"I do hope," he adds, back in the car, "that those hipsters in Hackney are also enjoying good quality meat with their micro beer and artisanal bread. My daughter is in her second year of university in London and she's gone vegan until Easter. I said, 'Darling, you're not saving the world.' Cattle play a crucial role in nature conservation. I'm very relaxed about people being vegetarian, but it's unhealthy being vegan." He points out a great stack of felled timber in the deer park. "That goes into our biomass boilers that heat the hall, shops, offices, wedding venue, cafés. Another one does the Vic." The Vic is the Victoria Inn, a 20-room hotel and restaurant on the estate.
Lord Leicester got interested in agriculture "as a young lad sweeping up corn. Then I was allowed to drive a tractor and I loved it. I'm glad I didn't go to agricultural college because I'd have been taught all the conventional stuff. I'm very keen on country sports, shooting and stalking. I've got an understanding of the countryside. I'm a trustee of a nature charity, SongBird Survival. I'm not a scientist, but I've an open mind and I observe. And I observe farmers working very hard for not much money and being kept afloat by CAP."
He is delighted with Brexit. "Yes, some farmers are going to fail, but it's exciting because so much more attention will be paid to the environment. We've a lot of work to do to arrest its decline." He wants to sit in the Lords, as his father did, as one of the 90 hereditaries allowed to stay following the Blair government's partial abolition act. "I'm a Conservative with a liberal outlook. For instance, I believe class B drugs should be legalised." You could grow it here, I suggest. "We have looked at hemp," he says, laughing, "but the combine driver gets a headache."
Down at the coast, Lord Leicester looks proudly over the marshes of the nature reserve. He points out the new café. "It's carbon negative. We could have made a pack of money had we sold bottled water. We put in a free water fountain instead." These marshes flooded in the great inundation of 1953, when 307 people were killed along Britain's east coast, and again in 1978. To put the café above any potential flood level, they dug out a lot of sand nearby, put the cattle on the marsh early to graze the grass down and were rewarded with a pair of oystercatchers and their fledgling last year. He points out Wells in the distance. "It's population has dropped because of locals selling up to second-home owners. We've 290 houses on the estate and I only rent out a few as holiday lets. The rest are for locals and key workers."
Lord Leicester having departed for a meeting in London, Fiennes and I repair to the Vic for coffee. Sitting outside, he rolls up a Golden Virginia cigarette in a distinctive liquorice paper. "They're banning these in May," he complains, issuing a throaty laugh.
In contrast to the stability of his boss's childhood, growing up in a place his family had owned for two centuries, Fiennes' early life, the youngest child of a photographer and a writer who supplemented their earnings by renovating rural houses, was peripatetic. He lived all over England and Ireland and went to 13 schools. "It was organised chaos. You just got on with it. Your bedroom was inspected at 9am on a Saturday by my father to make sure it was tidy. Lie-ins? We didn't have lie-ins."
"We moved all the time. It was the norm. You made friends quickly but then never saw them again. There are three Fiennes golden rules: don't have any friends; only accept invoices; get a fencer to put up a fence. I get on with everyone, but I don't have a strong network of individuals I can call on. I'm quite antisocial. I've only been here 16 months, but the acquaintances I'd had for years in my previous job in south Norfolk I have very little contact with."
He does admit, however, that he is jealous of his daughter "having gone to two schools and university, with the same social network she had at primary school". Teale, 19, is studying economics at Oxford Brookes. "She was going to do business. I said, 'That's not a f***ing degree.' " He has a son, Nathaniel, 17, studying fashion at City College in Norwich. He is no longer with their mother, an equine nurse. His new partner is an agricultural historian.
He has five siblings in all. Money was not plentiful. "Just because some of them have succeeded in their careers there's an assumption we were entitled from an early age and that's definitely not the case." His parents were known as bohemians: "Yeah, whatever that means." There were walls of books in all their many homes, which he struggled with because of dyslexia. Although he does remember "one Barbapapa book, where all the animals decide to leave the world because the humans are destroying it. That stuck with me. When I lie on my deathbed, I want to know I made a difference."
His mother, Jennifer, known as Jini, who died in 1993, wanted the children reared in the countryside. Sometimes the family was split, some in London, some in Dorset or wherever. But his parents stayed together until his mother's death, his father's following in 2004. "We are a close family, but we lead busy lives. My brothers are around the world." Are there family gatherings? "If there's a significant birthday some sort of effort will be made."
The explorer Sir Ranulph is a distant cousin. "Top man. It's not a very common surname. Those with it are generally related, especially when you have the full monty. [The complete version of his surname is Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes]. Only Ran goes by that. Try signing that on a passport. It's a nightmare, especially being dyslexic."
His father had been a tenant farmer before Jake was born but they weren't from farming stock. "I always had a connection with nature as a child, whether in rock pools in Ireland or building camps in the woods in Dorset." He painted his face white to blend in with the chickens. After a false start working in a nightclub and partying in London, he went to see some mates at Knepp Castle in Sussex (now the site of a major rewilding project). "I went for the weekend and stayed three years. I had an epiphany that I wanted to get back to nature. Knepp confirmed my belief that my passion was the natural world. The canvas just keeps getting bigger."
He's rumoured to be something of a workaholic. "I like to think I put my time in." Obsessive? "It's a family trait. I enjoy what I do. If I get up at half past five in the morning and start replying to emails and do social media, that's because I enjoy it. I'm told I don't have a work-life balance, but my work is my life. When you're on the pulse and things are happening, multiple things going on at once, there's something really satisfying about being on that treadmill, especially dealing with the natural world, with things beyond your control. It's a buzz. The whole family is like that."
When I lie on my deathbed, I want to know I've made a difference.
Partly because of his distinctive appearance, and his glamorous background, Fiennes is pigeonholed as a maverick in the tweedy world of countryside conservation. That is false. He is actually embedded in the agricultural and environmental establishment. He served as an adviser to the recent National Parks review. He is the eastern region's representative on the National Farmers Union's environmental forum. He's on the committee of the Norfolk Country Land and Business Association (Tom, naturally, is the chairman). He's applied to be on the board of Natural England, a Defra-sponsored quango. "I'm not a maverick. A piece in the local press said, 'Jake Fiennes says it's not rocket science.' That's true. I want to produce good healthy food in a way that isn't detrimental to our water quality, our soil, our air. I want to do what Gove said: hand on the landscape in a better condition than when we took it on."
And we haven't been doing that? "We've f***ed it. I've been talking about this for years. I've demonstrated what is possible in a sector that has been asked to produce, produce, produce and has sidelined nature, sidelined our landscapes, I'm just doing what I think is right. There is a growing sense of others realising this is an alternative route. We have intensification of agriculture and we have wilding – this is a middle way. We can produce food and have a thriving environment, using natural processes to benefit our food production and also getting people to enjoy it."
Fiennes has a drag on his fag. He's hitting his stride. "We have hundreds of thousands of visitors to the reserve and the children are screaming, 'Are we there yet? I need a wee.' When they get here, there are thousands of pink-footed geese and butterflies lifting off the grass sward. On the long drive home, they will have taken something back. That same thing needs to happen in our farmed landscape. We can have an agricultural system that works with nature as opposed to continually trying to batter nature to the ground. If we take our grip off its throat, nature will bounce back."
Is he optimistic? "You have to be. You've got to be positive. If every night you turn off the light and think of something you did good in that day, that's OK."
Written by: Robert Crampton
© The Times of London