The Penpont Process Eco-cultural mapping in action

"The wild is not about pristine landscapes. Instead, it's about landscapes that are rich and diverse enough to be interesting for everybody, human and non-human alike. When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness." - Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted nations on the planet. Restoring ecosystems has a central role to play in doing our fair share to tackle the 'polycrisis' of climate change, biodiversity loss and our disconnection from nature - the primary source of all nourishment and well-being.

Yet too often attempts to protect and restore nature in the UK overlook, ignore or marginalise ordinary people, especially those with the greatest stake: the people who draw a direct living from the land (farmers, gardeners, fishers, foresters), the young people who will inherit these isles, and knowledgable elders who have deep ecological knowledge to share.

This interactive story describes how the Penpont Project - the UK's largest intergenerational nature restoration initiative - has attempted to overcome these challenges using eco-cultural mapping tools. These are 'talking tools' that bring people together to build the trust needed to envision and enact a future that is "rich and diverse enough to be interesting for everybody, human and non-human alike".


  1. The Penpont Project - People, Place, Process
  2. An introduction to eco-cultural mapping
  3. Eco-cultural mapping at Penpont - Past, Present, Future.
  4. The Penpont Action Plan
  5. Successes so far

(Pictured left: members of the Penpont Project Partnership gather in a summer meadow to learn about natural succession. Photo: Curt Hayward)

The Penpont Project - People, Place, Process

Penpont: the place

Penpont is a 2,000 acre upland estate located in the Upper Usk River Catchment in the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons), Wales.

This storied landscape is home to landowners the Hogg Family, tenant farmers, foresters, market gardeners, artists and others.

(Pictured: Penpont House on the River Usk. Photo: Penpont Estate)

Since the early 1990s, under the stewardship of Gavin and Davina Hogg, Penpont has developed a strong orientation towards conservation and community. The famous Green Man Maze - planted by the nearby community to mark the Millennium - is a visual expression of this ethic.

(Pictured: Penpont's Green Man Maze. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

Since 2019, 500 acres of the Penpont landscape has been home to The Penpont Project - an initiative to restore bio-cultural diversity to the landscape by bringing generations together and empowering young people to step into a leadership role at Penpont.

(Pictured: The Penpont Partnership in the woods near Gwern Fawr (big alder bog). Photo: Jamie Curtis-Hayward)

Penpont: the people

People of Penpont. Photos: Andy Pilsbury

The Penpont Project Partnership was formed in 2019 to take this ambitious project forward. The 'core' of our partnership is made up of:

  • A Youth Leadership Group (YLG) of twenty young people aged 13-18 (some of the group pictured top left) who applied to lead the project after several years working with charity Action for Conservation;
  • The Hogg family (pictured top right - Davina Hogg who runs Penpont's walled garden) who own the land at Penpont;
  • The Davies Family (pictured bottom left - Sally Davies introducing YLG members to the lambs) who have farmed at Penpont for three generations;
  • Action for Conservation (pictured with YLG in the top right) - a youth environmental action charity set up in 2014 which has facilitated the project and the involvement of young people;
  • Expert friends of the project like Mary Shuldham (pictured bottom right), an expert in UK trees, orchards and foraging.

Over the past four years this core partnership has welcomed and collaborated with many experts, like Mary, who have advised us and enriched the project. We have also transitioned our YLG membership to become more local over time. All YLG members now live within an hour of Penpont.

Fox photographed at Clos coed. We recognise that our human partnership at Penpont is entangled with all life at Penpont. These beings - organic and inorganic - are with us at the decision-making table. The table itself is even made from them!

Our partnership reflects the diversity of voices and livelihoods to be found in Penpont and the wider Usk River catchment. Together we have formed a 'co-management council' that has shared power in order to design, develop and deliver positive change for people and the land at Penpont.

Penpont: the process

"Ecological restoration is... a mode of reconciliation with the human past.” - Laura J Martin, Wild by Design.

At Penpont our ambition is to achieve not just ecological restoration, but bio-cultural restoration - a process by which people and land recover diversity and resilience together within a place (Penpont). This means seeing ourselves as part of nature acting with other species, not as external agents acting upon the living world.

Our project has utilised many of the standard scientific tools needed to develop and deliver nature restoration - from ecological baseline surveys to drone mapping.

Members of Penpont's YLG take part in river sampling work on the Usk. Photo: Andy Pilsbury

However, as we have seen elsewhere in Wales, having a strong case for restoration based on ecological data and landowner approval does not necessarily yield effective restoration projects. Social equity and people's deep and cherished entanglements with land and waterscapes should be acknowledged and centred in restoration.

To some farmers 're-wilding' (one technique for ecological restoration) has become synonymous with land-grabbing and antipathy towards traditional livelihoods.

In other words, effective, socially just restoration does not happen 'on land', it happens 'in places'. Places that are the shaped by the long-term co-mingling of nature and culture.

With this in mind, we have developed our project by adapting a process known as eco-cultural mapping or social cartography, which combines flows of information from science, with the traditional knowledge of local people and 'outsider' perspectives.

Eco-cultural mapping in a nutshell

Developed by indigenous communities, anthropologists and cartographers in the Global South, eco-cultural mapping is a process of making low-tech, large-scale maps to:

  • (Re)connect members of communities, particularly different generations, and to balance power dynamics;
  • Remember, or generate a new, shared understanding of a territory in the past and the present based on different flows of knowledge e.g. scientific data, traditional ecological knowledge, historical sources;
  • (Re)vision the future of the land in a way that fosters community consent;
  • Make a plan to re-claim what is needed to bring this future about.

Also known as a 'talking tool' the mapping process is an 'outcome' in itself in that just participating has many benefits. It has been described as a form of community auto-therapy (a space where communities can uncover and address issues as a collective, from within).

While every mapping process is unique to place, eco-cultural mapping always happens according to a few key principles:

Key principles:

  • Everyone is an expert on place;
  • Everyone can be a cartographer;
  • Places are alive, so maps should be alive (i.e. maps don't present a fixed, ultimate reality. They can and should change over time as change occurs to land and people);
  • Whatever the problem, community is the answer (i.e. while outside support may be needed, change ultimately comes from within communities themselves, especially when they connect with others).

(Pictured left: an eco-cultural map created by the Tharaka People as part of a process facilitated by SALT Kenya and The Gaia Foundation. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades)

The use of this eco-cultural mapping process at Penpont in the context of an intergenerational project is a first in the UK, but does have corollaries in these isles, including Common Ground's Parish Mapping project and Alastair McIntosh's 'rubric of regeneration':

"Community regeneration is achieved by re-membering what has been dismembered, revisioning how the future could be and re-claiming what is needed to bring it about" - Alastair McIntosh, Rekindling Community

What these approaches share in common is a systems thinking approach that seeks to understand the mental models and structures that have led to the interconnected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and disconnection, and to address these in a transformative way i.e. from the 'bottom up' through community action.

(Pictured right: the 'iceberg model' of systems change)

Eco-cultural mapping at Penpont

Restoring the living world is an urgent priority. But doing so in a transformative way that deals with causes, rather than symptoms, requires us to go slow to then go fast. That is, to invest time in building the intergenerational communities that will argue for, help design and take this restoration forward.

At Penpont our eco-cultural mapping process took place over a (COVID-delayed) three-year period between 2019 - 2021. It unfolded in three distinct phases and, in a fourth action-planning stage, delivered a collectively mandated 5-year restoration plan for the 500 acres of the Penpont Project site.

Phase one: mapping Penpont's past

What animals lived at Penpont? How did people interact with the land and waters here? What was life like on the land?

Our past mapping exercise was a shared enquiry into these key questions. The goal was to expand our understanding not of one key moment in the past, but of Penpont's bio-cultural potential during the Holocene, avoiding the pitfalls of 'shifting baseline syndrome'.

Our eco-cultural map of the past (pictured left) draws on multiple sources of evidence:

  • Written and visual history: place names, county records, old maps, Estate records and logbooks, paintings and books about Penpont.
  • Living memory: oral histories collected from people who have lived at Penpont and seen the place change.
  • Forensic science: historical scientific records, biological surveys finding 'ecological indicators' of lost land-uses, animals, plants and ecosystems.

(Pictured left: Penpont past map. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

Having spent time gathering and analysing this information together, we brought together our Project Partnership and three knowledgable elders, each of whom have lived at Penpont for over 40 years, to create the map shown above.

Using a tracing paper layer overlaying a topographical map of the project area, members of the YLG map Penpont's past with input from elders Helen (bottom left) and Robert (top). Our efforts were also informed by local historian Jonathan Williams, and by Anne, Davina Hogg's mother. Photos: Jamie Curtis-Hayward

The result is a highly colourful, expressive map that identifies key features - both natural and cultural - of Penpont's a historic landscape. It expresses and records a shared understanding of the kind of diversity Penpont has sustained through time, and was the first step in our journey of re-membering what has been dismembered.

Close-ups from from the Penpont map of the past, identifying cultural features of the landscape (farming, infrastructure), biodiversity (coots, hares, curlews) and indicators of land-use (mushroom blooms indicating 'unimproved' grassland, bluebells and bracken indicating old woodland areas). Photos: Andy Pilsbury
“We had badgers and foxes and all sorts of creatures around us, and there were far more wild hare than there are now. Curlews going over at night. You never hear them now, but they were nesting up on the common...” - Robert MacDonald, Penpont Elder

Phase two: mapping Penpont's present

What ecosystems characterise Penpont today? How do people make a living from the land? What has changed?

To map the present state of the Penpont Project site, the YLG joined Estate teams to experience the day-to-day work of farmers, foresters and land managers, building up a picture of life on site.

Our research into Penpont's 'now' also drew on a full set of ecological baseline surveys (habitat, vegetation, breeding birds, insects, soil etc.), drone mapping and talks from ecological experts.

Equipped with this information, the Project Partners created the present map, pictured to the right.

(Pictured: Penpont present map. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

The mapping of the present continued our journey of re-membering. The primary purpose of this part of the process is to provide a visual point of comparison with the past map. This allowed our partnership to reflect on drivers of change and their impact on Penpont's bio-cultural diversity.

Discussing the differences - in style and content - between the Past and Present maps, the partnership identified three defining drivers of change at Penpont:

  • Status: trends among the landowning classes (e.g. for large-scale aesthetic landscaping) and economic shifts (e.g. those brought on by mechanisation in farming) led to unilateral re-modelling of the landscape;
  • War: demand for timber in war time re-shaped Penpont's woodlands, in line with how militarism has shaped the norms of the forestry sector across the UK in general terms;
  • Subsidies: post-WW2, the economics of farming shifted towards productivist approaches that marginalised overall biodiversity, fostering practices (e.g. overstocking) that have led to species loss at Penpont.
Close-ups from the present map reveal new infrastructure (large road, gas pipeline), species loss (absences of species across the site), fewer people farming the land and new norms of agriculture and forest management. Photos: Andy Pilsbury
"The reason (for decline in some species) may go back to pesticides, you know, 40 or 50 years ago almost… headage subsidies also made such a difference because everywhere there were so many sheep." - Helen Guichard, Penpont Elder

Phase three: envisioning a new future

What changes are needed so people and nature can thrive at Penpont, long into the future?

In Summer 2021, equipped with a far deeper understanding of and connection to Penpont, we set out to create a shared visionary map of Penpont's future.

Just as the maps of Penpont's past and present are not comprehensive, our future map is not an exact representation of the future that will come to be, nor of a specified moment in time e.g. 50 years in the future.

The future mapping process deliberately challenges participants to think multi-generationally. The aim is to to create a vision that:

  • Is ambitious enough to meet the challenges we face;
  • Is possible in ecological and cultural terms- i.e. is rooted in the specific realities of the place;
  • Frees people from feeling that they must already know exactly how these changes will be brought about, before plotting them on the map.

In order to prepare ourselves to make this future map, the Penpont Project Partnership visited other inspiring projects like the Knepp Estate and Oldlands, and undertook an online learning series created by Action for Conservation that shared tools for ecological restoration and regenerative agriculture.

(Pictured left: Penpont future map. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

The future mapping process in action. Photos: Jamie Curtis-Hayward

The future mapping process is an iterative one, involving multiple rounds of discussion, negotiation and consensus building between all participants. At Penpont it flowed like this:

  1. The group created and agreed a 'mapping constitution' that outlined how the process should proceed and according to what values (e.g. respect for others' views);
  2. Each group within our co-management council (e.g. farmers, landowners, YLG) had time to collectively reflect and come up with ideas and priorities for the future of the land;
  3. As a collective these initial ideas were 'sketched out' on the base map using post-it notes;
  4. This 'sketch map' was peer reviewed by the group, with any post-its expressing an unclear or controversial topic picked off the map and placed on a discussion board;
  5. We collectively discussed each topic raised for further scrutiny and decided if they would be included on the map as they were, changed and included or not included at all;
  6. With consensus on the ideas expressed on the sketch map, post-its were removed and replaced by images and text drawn directly onto the base map by the group, creating the future map depicted above and below.
Close-ups from the Penpont future map. Photos: Andy Pilsbury

In our future map, Penpont emerges as neither a fully farmed landscape, nor a completely re-wilded area of broad-leaved forest and wood pasture free of all human influence and management. Instead, what emerges from the map is a vision of a bio-culturally diverse Penpont.

The future landscape is a dynamic place that is being shaped by a mosaic of rewilding (natural process-led) and regenerative agriculture approaches, including native species reintroductions (pine martens, beavers), silvopasture, orchards, a tree nursery and more. The site is also supporting diversified agricultural livelihoods, as well as welcoming visitors and large groups of young people to connect with and learn about nature, local life-ways and traditions.

This shared vision was signed by every participant upon the completion of the map. This now forms a collective visual agreement to collaborate towards making these transformative changes possible.

The Penpont Action Plan

Following the mapping process, we identified three areas of change that will play a key role in realising this mosaic of socio-ecosystems:

  • Wildlands (wilder ecosystems and restored natural processes)
  • Food, farming and agroforestry (human-managed, regenerative land-use and practices)
  • Culture and education (drawing on and informing both of the above)

(Pictured: prompt questions for our 'rivers of change' action mapping session. Photo: AFC)

Using rivers and their many tributaries as a visual reference, and working backwards from the vision contained in our future map, we laid out what priority actions we believe need to happen, and in what order.

Co-created rivers of change at Penpont. Photo: AFC

For these rivers of change, our focus was placed on the 5-years to come, giving us a manageable timeframe to focus on. We also divided the task by theme and a collective plenary was held to spot cross-cutting actions and resolve any differences of opinion or points of contention.

Using these pathways, Penpont Project Manager Forrest Hogg developed a more detailed land action plan using GIS mapping software. This plan has been used to create a new monitoring, evaluation and learning framework for the project. Signed off by all partners, it provides the granular detail needed for on-the-ground delivery, fundraising and other forms of organising that will help resource change at Penpont.

As part of our pathways process the YLG, recognising that they will not be able to feed into and deliver every important action on-site during the action phase, collectively developed an 'acid test for youth leadership' to help guide those living on-site or locally as they take action to realise our shared vision. Pictured below, the acid test is the key mechanism by which the project will ensure youth leadership is fully-embedded in the project moving forwards. 

The Penpont Project's Acid Test for Youth Leadership ensures all partners continue to embed youth leadership in decision-making where young people themselves have indicated their interest. Photo: AFC

Successes so far

"Without this mapping effort and these discussions, we would not have been able to collaborate in creating a shared vision for a wilder future at Penpont that we are all now striving to achieve together in the action phase of the project." - Esther Bird, Penpont YLG member

The eco-cultural mapping process itself has been one of the Penpont Project's biggest successes so far. When surveyed after participating in the full mapping process, 100% of the Penpont Youth Leadership group:

  • Thought that AFC's past, present and future mapping process was effective in creating a shared vision for the project.
  • Experienced an improvement in their well-being thanks to their involvement in the project.
  • Said that being involved in the Penpont Project has made them more interested in studying, volunteering and/or a career involving protecting and restoring nature.

Having built a strong multigenerational community rooted in a shared understanding of Penpont, in 2023 the Penpont Partnership entered the first 5-year action phase of the project...

Over the course of 2023, we created more than a dozen new microhabitats. Reptile and amphibian refugia and hay piles have been created across the project site. Meanwhile owl and pine marten boxes have been put up in ancient woodland areas, and a new otter holt built on the banks of the Usk RIver.

(Pictured: YLG members construct a new otter holt. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

Three pond and wetland systems have been restored at Cwmsefin Farm. Grazing pressure has been removed from more than 25 acres of the project site, and the introduction of conservation grazing species like Old English Longhorn cattle has begun to catalyse the re-emergence of more species rich grassland.

(Pictured: Longhorn cattle at Cwmsefin Farm. Photo: Penpont Estate)

Penpont's treescape has been bolstered through a series of multigenerational community action days. Young people from Wales and the South West of England, as well as local community members have joined forces to plant more than 5,000 trees, including endangered species like Black poplar, creating new hedgerows, riverside woodland and silvopasture fields. We welcomed attendees aged between 4 and 86!

Throughout the winter of 2023/24 we will plant tens of thousands more native trees, creating new ecological connectivity, and establish a tree nursery at Penpont.

(Pictured: Gavin and Forrest Hogg demonstrate tree planting techniques during our Black poplar planting day. Photo: Paul Edgeley)

Across the year, we welcomed 150+ young people from local schools and youth groups to Penpont, where they were able to learn about and connect with nature, have fun and help us achieve the goals of our action plan by, for example, planting more than 800 native trees.

We also recruited and trained our first two Penpont rangers - Ella and Daniel - who have been learning the skills needed to restore, care for and educate others about the land.

Based on the feedback shared by these young people, we are working with the Penpont YLG to co-create Penpont's full education programme for 2024.

(Pictured R to L: Hana, Mary and Khadijah in Penpont's orchard. Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

Led by members of the YLG, we reached beyond Penpont to inspire others to create opportunities for young people to lead.

Dom (pictured) presented at the British Ecological Society, speaking about the role young people have to play in the future of Britain's treescapes.

Other members of the YLG wrote powerful articles for The Ecologist, Nature Cymru and Woop Woop Magazine, advised land-based projects in Derbyshire and Bristol and participated in The Gaia Foundations We Feed the UK photographic campaign.

(Photo: Andy Pilsbury)

Learn more about the Penpont Project and support our work by visiting AFC's website.