Our family bought Wadhurst Park in 1975. We are newcomers to the Sussex High Weald. At first, we made a deer park. In 1999 we bought the adjoining Rolf’s Farm, and began to focus more on conserving natural habitats.
Today, we manage our 800 hectares to protect its nature, wildlife, cultural heritage and beauty. We also manage according to our belief in sharing the benefits of our land and knowledge, and evidencing our work empirically.
Our vision is for Wadhurst Park to be a leading example of sustainable environmental management in the High Weald.
Our purpose is to revive a beautiful, biodiverse and historic landscape, to inspire our community and together build a more sustainable future. We do this by rediscovering lost habitats and management practices, and blending these with new ideas, skills and technology.
The estate has few income sources, and its considerable cost is paid privately by the family. In that sense, we resemble a charity, and we provide no answer, alas, to the difficult question of whether responsible Wealden land use can also pay for itself.
In 1975, almost all fields were sprayed, seeded and fertilised as intensively managed pasture, and earlier, also as arable. The ancient coppice woods were no longer managed, hedgerows had been grubbed out and the estate had been extensively drained. We have been restoring wild flower meadows, replanting hedgerows, coppicing woods again, re-establishing lost woods and solitary trees, re-creating lost ponds, and making wetlands in old river meanders. We do not keep cats or allow our house tenants to keep cats, and we no longer use insecticides, fungicides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers.
We have seen nature respond. Butterflies thrive in our flower meadows and along woodland rides and glades. Amphibians are prospering on our agrochemical-free estate, while small mammals flourish in the long grass and shrubby hedgerows. Our monitoring shows ever more bird species. Our surveys since 2011 have recorded 23 threatened and rare bird species, and 19 near-threatened species. Ten species of bat hunt over fields and water, and in woods.
Wadhurst Park lies within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This is an historic landscape of small fields, ancient woods, and streams running in deep-cut ghylls. It has many ponds: clay was dug for bricks and tiles, to marl fields, and to mine ironstone. The soil is mostly heavy Wadhurst clay, with some Tunbridge Wells sand and sandy loam.
Two areas are designated as Local Wildlife Sites, covering 26.6 hectares of grassland and 35 hectares of woods. These sites have very high nature conservation value, with locally or nationally rare species.
In 1988, we bought Batts Wood from the Forestry Commission. This ancient woodland had been made into a conifer plantation, but it was badly damaged in the 1987 storm. We allowed it to regenerate naturally, and now it is mostly broadleaved trees and home to abundant wildlife. We thin or coppice areas to increase structural diversity.
Total area: 796 hectares (ha) Grassland: 500 ha Woodland: 245 ha Gardens: 21 ha Water: 20 ha Buildings, tracks, hard surfaces: 10 ha
Deer park: 141 ha Length of hedges: 20km Highest point: 145 meters Lowest point: 43 meters
The estate is run with a small team, including an estate manager, an estate ecologist, a conservation and sustainability officer, and four team members who undertake the practical work on the ground. We also have four full time gardeners working in two locations, with additional part-time and student help.
We restore our traditional vernacular buildings, using local, reclaimed materials where possible. We have built a new team office and common room in keeping with the older buildings. We have removed mid-twentieth-century barns and asphalt surfaces, where no longer required. Hard standing is allowed to develop as brownfield habitats.
Our restoration work draws on detailed research using historical records. As we replant hedgerows to recreate old fields and re-establish lost woods, ponds and marshes, we use the first Ordnance Survey map (1878-1879). This map was made just after the railway came to our part of Sussex and shows a landscape almost unchanged since the middle ages.
Intensive farming drives biodiversity collapse across the British countryside. By contrast, we follow best practice guidelines for low-intensity farming. For example, we never use fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. Our small herds of rare breed Sussex cattle and Longhorn cattle graze our fields at conservation densities. Licensed graziers graze some fields with Romney and Suffolk sheep, and Sussex cattle. Our graziers do not use ivermectins or other chemicals on our land. Sheep lightly graze the meadows in winter, to help wild flowers germinate.
The recent British population explosion of wild deer threaten all woods, including ours. Deer browse new growth to a level that prevents regeneration, damaging important habitat for other species. We cull wild deer on our land to help restore a balance that in the deep past, predators provided. We do not kill “vermin”; magpies, jays, crows, pigeons, squirrels, foxes, stoats, weasels, moles, and rabbits. We do not disturb nesting birds.
To preserve soil and ground flora and to reduce air pollution, we only burn brash or garden waste if from invasive species. To reduce soil compaction, we use low ground pressure tracked vehicles, and minimize driving across fields.
We monitor progress and feed results back into planning. Our team follow developments in the fields of conservation, sustainability, farming and forestry, and we adapt our practices in light of new scientific understanding.
HABITAT RESTORATION AND CONSERVATION
We began restoring meadows in 2001. Then, we used native seed mixes. Later, as we made new hay meadows from species-poor grassland, we used local Wealden meadow seed. Other fields we manage to increase their floral diversity. Nearly one fifth of the estate grassland is now meadow, supporting a diverse community of plants and insects, including some rare species.
We cut some hay meadows late and with wide edge margins, so flowers set seed and insects complete their life cycles. Some of our poorer grassland we cut on a 3-5 year rotation, to create small mammal habitat and hunting grounds for owls, kestrels and buzzards. Each year, we leave some fields ungrazed to help insects.
On the River Rother floodplain, we leave longer grass and rushes around seasonal ponds and scrapes to help wintering and breeding waders and wildfowl. The river now has 0.85 km of riparian strip. Its long grasses and scrub protect wildlife and keep cattle from the river.
We sow 2.4 hectares with birdseed and manage a further 6 hectares for farmland birds in winter. Alongside the hay meadows, we have sown nectar strips with a bee clover mix, to feed insects after hay-cutting.
We have taken around a third of the original deer park out of grazing for now, to rest the land. In this excluded block, we found three lost woods: these woods were still existing in 1945. We will restore these over the next few years. As a start, we have planted single trees and small blocks of scrub — blackthorn, gorse and fruiting bushes and trees — to welcome wildlife.
More than three quarters of our mixed broadleaved woods appear on seventeenth century maps and are probably medieval, or even older. Traditionally these were coppiced, leaving standard trees for timber. Coppicing ceased around 1950. We restarted it, coppicing around 1.2 hectares each year. Our coppice cycles are 15-20 years, depending on species. We leave standard trees and use the brash to build dead hedges, to protect young coppice from deer.
We have replanted 7.96 hectares of these lost, historic woods, with 7.5 hectares regenerating naturally. In addition, we have planted a further 11.9 hectares of new, broad-leaved woods on improved grassland.
Within the woods, we cut glades and rides every year. Wild flowers need the sun as do butterflies, like the white admiral. We leave some woods as undisturbed, pathless wildwood. Everywhere, we leave standing and lying deadwood in situ — including coppice brash and wood debris in streams, ponds, and lakes — for fungi, insects, birds and mammals.
Since 2009, we have re-planted 4.5 km of mixed native hedgerows along our old, lost field hedges. We use many fruiting shrubs and nut trees.
Some hedges we cut every year, as dense, low hedges for farmland birds. Some, we leave for two to three years between cuts, to retain berries and nuts for wildlife. Others still, we leave to develop into wide, tall scrubby hedges for nightingales and turtle doves. We never cut in bird breeding season and where possible, we cut very late, so as to feed wildlife over winter. Where hedges need regeneration, we lay them in a traditional Sussex style.
Since 1987, we have planted more than 600 single trees across the estate (and many more trees, of course, in our plantation woods). Some are rare Sussex trees, such as wild pear and wild service tree, as well as clones of local black poplars, crab apple and veteran white willow. Reviving a lost tradition, we have planted bundle trees, traditional Sussex boundary markers where two tree species, planted together, grow entwined.
We have planted a 2.8 hectare traditional, organic, mixed orchard. We take some of the fruit and leave the rest for the local wildlife. Orchards, as we know from our map studies, surrounded all Wealden Farms in the 1870s. Today, almost all are lost.
In the deer park, we replant now-lost park trees, guided by the 1870s Ordnance Survey. We plant 10-20 mostly native whips and young trees each year, including Scot’s pine, offspring of Windsor Great Park oaks, and elms that seemingly resist Dutch elm disease. We have also planted an avenue of forty King James black mulberry trees, and we are planting warm climate trees too, such as sweet chestnut and small-leaved lime.
Since 2015, we have been fencing deer out of habitats within the deer park. Most recently, we have fenced out the southern third of the park and another 12 hectares in the north to rest the ground and allow us to improve habitats for wildlife.
The deer park now covers 141 hectares. It contains fallow and sika deer, as well as Pere David and Barasingha, both globally endangered.
We have reduced the deer numbers by 80%, from 1,070 in 2009 to 210 from 2018. Our grassland is now better structured. We have also excluded the deer from woods and some marshes. To vary the grazing regime and to add diversity, a small herd of Sussex cattle graze the park in summer.
We are also restoring Wadhurst Park lake. To encourage aquatic plants, we have removed most of the bottom feeding fish (carp, bream and tench) from the lake and six upstream ponds, leaving perch to control zooplankton and fish numbers. To lower sedimentation rates, green the banks and control bank erosion, we have planted more than 400m of bankside planting.
We have planted aquatic plants too. Three floating islands give safe haven for young fish and breeding sites for damselflies and dragonflies. All this ecological work has resulted in the clarity of the water increasing from c. 0.30m to more than 1.5m.
We have identified seven lost, or ‘ghost’ ponds on the estate (five in the southern park). We have begun by re-excavating one that was filled in in the 1970s, and will monitor which species return. Another lost pond, visible on the ground, was filled in between the earliest estate map of 1640 and the first edition OS map of 1870. We plan to re-establish this pond too, and then, we hope, the others.
Other Conservation Measures
We have removed the huge amount of rubbish, litter and farm debris we found on the land when we bought it, as well as miles of abandoned barbed wire. We replaced old fences with wildlife-friendly ones, giving mammals and ground-dwelling birds safe passage.
We coppice trees and shrubs to give ponds sunlight, and we have created more than a third of a hectare (c. an acre) of wetlands.
We encourage scrub in field corners and along wood borders, and we are working on creating new areas of wood pasture, where gently grazing cattle move between field and woodlands as they will.
In the garden, we have preserved a Victorian rhododendron collection from Waterer’s nursery. But we have removed over 1.5 hectares of invasive R. ponticum and cherry laurel and continue to eliminate these invasive species from around the estate.
We started botanical and wildlife surveys in 2000 on Rolf’s Farm. When managing new land, we do baseline surveys to assess habitats to see how we can best increase wildlife diversity. We analyze all our survey data and feed this back into our management.
Since 2011, we have collected annual bird and butterfly data across the estate. Between 2011 and 2016, our bird data showed positive trends: both in number of species recorded and total number of individuals. In 2017, we made our survey methods more scientifically robust. The new survey data are in line with previous observations and compare favourably to other conservation sites, not to mention other farms.
Threatened and rare birds (red and amber list species) increased on Wadhurst Park between 2011 and 2016, while many of these species decreased nationally. Highly threatened farmland birds like skylark, yellowhammer and turtle dove breed at Wadhurst Park. Our shrubs house a few nightingales.
We also survey wetland birds on Wadhurst Park Lake, as part of a countrywide survey for the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2015, we started restoring the very degraded ecology of the lake. Both the numbers of birds and bird species have increased since. Around 56% of these wetland birds are red or amber-listed.
Wetland birds have become more diverse and abundant
The estate has many small mammals. Our woods have numerous yellow-necked mice and wood mice, as well as shrews and pygmy shrews. Bank and field voles are abundant and support mammalian predators, such as weasels, and breeding populations of kestrels, tawny owls and barn owls. A short-eared owl has been seen hunting over the deer park.
In our standard survey across nine woods, we consistently find dormice, with evidence of breeding in several woods.
As top predators, bats indicate habitat quality. We have day roosts of common and soprano pipistrelles, and Natterer’s bats, and maternity roosts of brown long-eared and noctule bats. Daubenton’s and Nathusius pipistrelle bats catch insects above Wadhurst Park Lake on summer evenings, though we don’t know where they roost. We have also recorded whiskered bats, Leisler’s bats and serotine bats. We put bat boxes on buildings and in woods, retain natural roosting sites when coppicing, and generally make our woods welcoming for woodland bats.
Now and again, we see brown hares, and we have recorded a few nests for the elusive harvest mouse. These animals are part of our management plans too.
It is not all good news. Many of our butterfly populations have increased. But our rare and threatened butterflies (as listed by Butterfly Conservation) have declined, as many have done nationally. We still have small populations of dingy and grizzled skippers and small heath in our warmer grassland, while white admirals breed in the old woods. But their numbers are low. We are managing land to improve the habitats for these species.
We will continue to restore the lake by planting water plants, protecting banks, fencing off deer and cattle, and coppicing woods.
Within the southern park there are lost woods. We will restore these through natural regeneration with some planting of native species. We will also diversify the park grassland by using green hay taken from our species-rich meadows.
Elsewhere on the estate, we will create more Wealden meadows, and widen hedgerows. We will allow dense scrub to develop for nightingales and turtle doves. We will create scrapes and open out ponds. We will thin our wood plantations to create more natural looking young woods. This will increase ground flora and scrub and improve the woodland structure and diversity.
We are planning for gently grazed wood pasture, tying together larger grazing areas with plantation woods. Very low density grazing makes for scrubby pasture, a now rare habitat vital for a wide range of wildlife.
We are also breaking land drains to create valuable marsh on currently improved grassland.
We will continue to monitor species and habitat quality. The results will direct our future management. We also research other potential conservation measures. Would pigs help diversify low-diversity grasslands? Can we reintroduce locally extinct native species, as we have done already with hedgehogs? How do we best help our rarest habitats, like wet woodlands. How do we best look after archaeological traces and remnants, like our 19th century duck ponds and estate garden, and our Tudor iron mill?
We are exploring ways to share the estate more with visitors and the local community. We are planning to create more permissive footpaths where dogs will not disturb wildlife; hold more open days in our gardens; and welcome more school groups and local societies. We currently run conservation courses on our land, and plan to extend this programme to reach more people.
We help wildlife thrive on our land. We also recognise global threats to biodiversity and indeed humanity, such as climate change, plastic pollution and the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
In 2018 we completed our first carbon footprint audit to help us understand and target our climate change impact. Our operations were emitting around 250 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.
Carbon footprint at Wadhurst Park
We have moved swiftly to reduce these emissions by switching to renewable electricity tariffs, installing solar generation, and using electric vehicles. Our goal is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, in line with international targets to limit global warming to 1.5˚C.
Further measures to improve sustainability include policies to reduce waste, increase recycling and harvest rainwater.