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Pastimes: Baroness Miller's French vineyard

Pastimes: Baroness Miller's French vineyard
4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Baroness Miller tells of life on her French vineyard

When grapes were being stripped from some of her vines, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer thought the thieves must be the local deer. So when she checked a wildlife camera in her French vineyard, she had a surprise. “I captured a picture of a badger standing on its hind legs, pulling them off,” she says, laughing. “They particularly liked the Cabernet Sauvignon.” 

Miller, who was elevated to the Lords in 1998 and served as Liberal Democrat spokesperson on the environment, food and rural affairs, sold the vineyard in Dordogne at the start of this month after 12 years, as her husband, Humphrey Temperley, had a stroke. Their award-winning wine, made under the Chateau Lestevenie label and sold directly to clients, includes a dry white, a rosé, two reds, a dessert wine and a crémant (sparkling wine). 

Politics is so cerebral; I wanted to go back to something more practical

The couple’s mission has been “agroecology”: protecting nature alongside agricultural production, for example by using poultry manure instead of chemical fertiliser. Of the 32 hectares, 15 are vineyards, the rest is half oak woodland and half meadows with wildflowers – perfect habitats for animals. Miller, who worked in publishing before leading South Somerset District Council, started the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology 11 years ago, hoping to spread the idea that “we can still feed the world, but farm in a much more nature-sensitive way”. 

The couple bought the vineyard after tragedy struck. In 2001, Miller’s older daughter, Charlotte, was killed in an accident in Ecuador at the age of 19. Two years later, Miller developed a brain tumour, which fortunately turned out to be benign. “The Lords is a great place if you suffer anything like that because people have a lot of life experience and they’re very sympathetic and able to help,” she says. “Death isn’t a taboo to them.” 

Charlotte’s death made her reassess her life: “The idea grew on us that we wanted to do something different. Politics is so cerebral; I wanted to go back to something more practical.” Humphrey had been a farmer in Somerset, raising sheep, growing vegetables and making cider, but had sold up. They both liked France and Miller realised she could commute weekly to London while Parliament was sitting. “When we first came here, we both said: ‘This is just like Somerset was 30 years ago – it’s rolling hills, valleys and woods. No traffic.’”

The land has been home to a vineyard since 1722. The French, she adds, are ahead on agroecology, with lots of seminars and advice available. Miller feels that too much of the conversation in the UK is about rewilding – “which has its place, but is the trend of the moment” – when we should be talking about integrating nature into all environments, even urban ones. “My worry is that rewilding is something only larger landowners have the ability to do,” she argues. “For tenant farmers and smaller farmers, it’s really about farming in a way that you are sharing the land with nature.” 

The couple were part of France’s National Biodiversity Observatory, which studied their earthworms and butterflies, to work out how to improve the soil to help insects. “That feeds through – forgive the pun! – to your birds,” she says. It also helps the gardener’s traditional foe, the mole.

Miller sees them differently, recalling something the late environmental campaigner Lord Melchett told her. “He said you have to remember that moles are to our landscape as lions are to the Serengeti” she says. “They’re top of the food chain, so if your soil, invertebrates and earthworms are all in great condition, you’ll have lots of moles. Too often people see moles as a terrible thing and they kill them – but they’re really a marker of the quality of your soil.”

 

Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with the Sunday Times.

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