Sustainability case studies
Examples from a selection of house members of what is being done to tackle climate change and environmental degradation and protect and restore natural habitats
The 3,500 acre Knepp estate in Sussex is undertaking an ambitious rewilding project – the biggest in lowland Britain, and the only one to use a multi-species natural grazing technique. Once a conventional intensive dairy and arable farm, in 2001 Knepp’s owners embarked on a series of habitat regeneration projects to rewild their land. They sold their dairy herds and farm machinery, stopped using pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers, and stepped back to allow nature to take its course.
Knepp has embraced a theory of grazing ecology which uses free-roaming grazing animals to restore soils and reshape the landscape, creating complex and rich habitats for a wide range of other fauna and flora. They have introduced some modern equivalents of ancient native grazing species, such as English longhorn cattle, red and fallow deer, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies, an ancient breed that are now an endangered species.
They continue to farm in a less intensive and more sustainable way, producing organic pasture-fed meat from free-roaming herds of animals within the Wildland project. Sustainably and humanely raised with a low carbon footprint, this way of farming does the least possible harm to the animal, and the most good for the environment. Knepp also now runs an eco-tourism business from their new campsite, offering wildlife safaris and sustainable accommodation options with solar-powered and wood-fired facilities.
Knepp today is a biodiverse sanctuary for all manner of species to call home, from the endangered nightingale to the UK’s largest population of purple emperor butterflies, and soon to be home to some of the first reintroduced European beavers. Visited by numerous conservation organisations, including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, as well as policy makers, farmers and landowners, Knepp is a leading light for the future of nature conservation.
Holkham Estate covers 10,000 hectacres of land, including 18km of North Norfolk’s coastline. The entire estate, including some of its key business activities, are vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Holkham’s mixture of farming, forestry and biodiversity conservation alongside historic buildings puts sustainability at its core. To assist with delivering a refocused ambition the Estate appointed a General Manager of Conservation in 2018 and a Sustainability & Learning Manager in 2020.
Sustainable food production integrated with biodiversity is the focus of the farming operation at Holkham. A 6-year crop rotation reduces the build up of pests and diseases, reducing the need for artificial chemical inputs. Long term soil health is vital. Cover crops are planted over winter and then grazed by sheep that, in turn, put organic matter back into the soil. Hay meadows, wildflower strips, game cover strips and buffer strips are also planted to provide habitats and food sources to benefit invertebrates and small mammals. Livestock is used to graze Holkham National Nature Reserve. They play a vital role in helping this internationally important habitat, as well as producing beef used in the restaurants at Holkham’s estate inn, The Victoria. Holkham Estate owns and manages the 4,000-hectare site after achieving Approved Body Status under Section 35 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 2017. Conservation, farming, gamekeeping and forestry teams all work together and with tenant farmers to deliver the aim of reduced artificial inputs, increased biodiversity and improved soil health.
Two biomass boilers were installed in 2013 which use wood from the Estate to heat the hall, the Lady Elizabeth Wing, the stables offices, Courtyard Café, gift shop, visitor reception, Estate Office and Holkham Stories exhibition. Elsewhere, a 100-acre solar park consisting of 84,500 photovoltaic panels generates enough electricity to power 6,200 average homes, saving 8,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. In addition, solar panels at the Beach Café and Pinewoods Holiday Park generate their own electricity. An anaerobic digester takes maize and rye grass grown on farms locally and converts it into natural gas, which heats 2,500 homes in the winter and 40,000 homes in the summer. The by-products of liquid and solid digestates (approximately 25,000-tonnes) are returned to the fields and the walled garden as both a fertilizer and soil improver. A ground source heat pump was also installed at Longlands Business Park as part of its restoration in 2015 using natural heat to warm the offices and workshops for over 100 staff, and sn air source heat pump at Hill Farm was installed when the offices were converted in 2018.
In 2018, Holkham Enterprises opened The Lookout on Holkham National Nature Reserve, providing much needed visitor facilities and interpretation to our 800,000 annual visitors. Sustainability is at the heart of this operation with a number of key initiatives. For example, all packaging and catering consumables (e.g. coffee cups, napkins) are made from compostable materials, free water is available from a fountain, where possible all products are sourced from local suppliers, the vehicles are electric and the ice-lollies are even wrapper-free. Our other two cafes have also adopted compostable packaging, removing single use plastics, and practice recycling, sustainable procurement and waste management. Pinewoods Holiday Park has held the David Bellamy Gold Conservation Award since 2000, recognizing their commitment to recycling, reducing water consumption and providing biodiversity. The Victoria Inn has held the Green Tourism Gold Award since 2017 which aims to reduce its environmental impact on the planet. This is done through sustainable procurement, the Reduce, Reuse & Recycle initiative, and reducing carbon emissions. Where possible local, seasonal produce is used with low food miles supporting the local economy as well as the environment. A cycle to work scheme is available to full-time employees.
Nestled between Birmingham and Coventry, Packington Estate is made up of a number of farms, open parkland, and a nature reserve. Most of the land is involved in arable production, however there are still extensive areas of grassland that support beef and sheep farming. The Estate is under ‘Countryside Stewardship’ which ensures that the farms are managed sensitively, and that wildlife habitats are created and enhanced to allow native flora and fauna to flourish.
At the heart of the Estate sits Packington Hall and Deer Park, where some 350 fallow deer roam the park freely as they have done for over 400 years. Raised on parkland grass and sustainably managed, they continue to provide ethically sourced venison to the estate today. The house and garden are moving towards self-sufficient practices, with the Hall heated by a ground source heat pump, and the Walled Garden recently reinstated to grow food for the estate. Compost from food waste is re-used in the garden, and a no-dig method protects plant roots whilst preventing damage to earthworms, nematodes and mycorrhizal fungi, which are vital to the health of the soil.
All of Packington Estate’s Woodland, including a commercial plantation, is included in a 20-year Forestry Management Plan which ensures that the woodland habitat is maintained and improved for both timber quality and habitat. The waste product from felling in the commercial area of woodland is chipped and resold to energy generating power plants. New trees have been planted in the park and gardens in order to ‘future proof’ against the eventual felling of older trees, as well as to increase the amount of woodland on the estate.
Historic mining activity on the Estate has left several quarry holes, which are intended to be backfilled before being restored to agricultural use. The Estate has entered into a joint venture agreement with a land fill operator who recover recyclable aggregates from inert waste. As much as 70% of material sent to landfill can now be recovered and is sold back into the construction industry, and it means that Estate building contractors can source all their aggregate supplies from the Estate.
Elsewhere on the estate, in the flood plain of the River Blythe, lies Marsh Lane Nature Reserve. This former quarry is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and consists of three ponds, woodland, grassland, and some agricultural land. Two of the ponds have been shaped to include islands, which have attracted a wide range of wading and water birds. Additionally, sixteen acres of former arable ground has been shaped into wet grassland, an ideal breeding and feeding habitat for these birds. Four hides have been constructed which give excellent views of all the pools and islands to nature enthusiasts visiting the reserve. There are also two established feeding stations which attract a variety of species, and a 5-acre field which has been set aside to provide food and cover in the winter. As of May 2019, the site is home to 205 species, including the Hoopoe, Spotted Sandpiper, Grey Phalarope, Black Kite, Rough-legged Buzzard, Spoonbill, Stone Curlew, Lesser Yellowlegs, Red-backed Shrike, Dusky Warbler and Osprey.
The 4th Baron Somerleyton, Hugh Crossley, is a committed conservationist and founding member of the WildEast project. The mission of WildEast is to transform East Anglia into one of the largest nature reserves in the world by returning 20% of its’ land – 250,000 hectares – to nature in the next 50 years. This will involve rebuilding habitats, a national curriculum education programme, a total rejection of single use plastics, and an ambitious scheme to reintroduce key species to East Anglia – including the lynx, the pelican, and the European beaver.
In one of the most intensively farmed areas of Britain, WildEast are calling on landowners, councils and homeowners to do what they can to rewild at least 20% of their land, no matter how big or small. The aim is to encourage East Anglians not just to visit nature reserves, but to cultivate their own. The charity is developing an app and an accreditation scheme so that people can add their wilding pledges to “a map of dreams”, whether it is restoring an old pond or creating a hedgehog- and slug-friendly garden. WildEast hopes councils will get involved – for instance, derelict land earmarked for industrial estates could be given planning consent with the condition that 20% is set aside for natural ecosystems.
Somerleyton itself has committed 1000 acres of its 5000 acre estate to rewilding. An enclosure of wood pasture, restored grassland and heathland will be naturally grazed by free-roaming pigs and Exmoor ponies to enrich the bio-diversity around both the Lake and Estate. Elsewhere on the land, an area of river valley has been allowed to flood to bring overwintering birds back to the location, and tonnes of commercially planted trees have been removed to allow the light in and restore more natural woodland habitats.
Looking to the long-term, Lord Somerleyton envisions the Wild East Foundation buying strips land to enable wildlife corridors, and working with Highways England to build green bridges to help wildlife cross busy roads. In the here and now, Lord Somerleyton is working hard to convince other landowners and farmers to give some of their land over to nature for the greater good. ‘I’m sure I’ll get a lot of doors shut in my face but one might open, and if each of the landowners in the group does the same thing – hopefully it will ripple out from there. We are better off working together to rekindle the relationship that farmers have traditionally had with nature.’