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 850 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. As part of our desire to help improve the landscape of the High Weald, we host and help run Sussex Lund, a grants programme supporting small-scale, practical, environmental projects.
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 20 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 1996, 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 under the Chief Executive, including an Estate Manager, a Head of Conservation, 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 new properties too. The original house, Hightown, was lost in history; the Victorian Wadhurst Hall was demolished in the 1950s. The family built the New House in 1986 to a modern design by John Outram. It is now Grade One listed by English Heritage. Ptolemy Dean designed our new Estate office and common room to be in keeping with the surrounding nineteenth-century buildings. The new buildings won a Sussex Heritage Trust award in 2019. He advises on the restoration of other historic buildings on the Estate. Elsewhere, we have removed mid-twentieth-century barns and asphalt surfaces where no longer required. Hard standing is allowed to develop as brownfield habitats.
Our gardens are managed organically without the use of peat. We compost our garden waste, using it to mulch and feed the soil. We grow fruit and vegetables for the house, leaving some fruit for wildlife. We are learning to garden with respect for the natural world, keeping some areas less tidy for wildlife. We retain sections of uncut meadow until spring for overwintering habitat insects, and our lawns are mown less often and not too short. Tom Stuart-Smith designed new landscaping along these lines, softening and naturalising the planting. He continues to advise the garden team.
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.
We create and maintain traditional orchards, hay meadows and coppice woods not only for their ecological benefits, but for historical reasons too. 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 graze our fields at conservation densities. This local breed does well on our heavy soil and unfertilized grazing pasture. We do not need to supplementary feed, and will be experimenting with out-wintering the younger cattle this year. Licensed graziers graze some fields with Romney and Suffolk sheep, and more Sussex cattle. Following our management practices, our graziers do not use ivermectins or other chemicals on our land. Sheep lightly graze the meadows in winter, to help wildflowers 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 leave wide uncut 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 0.9 km of riparian strip. Its long grasses and scrub protect wildlife and keep cattle from the river.
We manage 5.5 hectares for farmland birds in winter, allowing weedy plant species to flower and set seed. Alongside the hay meadows, we have sown nectar strips with a bee clover mix, to feed insects after hay-cutting.
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, and aim to coppice around 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 8 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. This is an important resource which provides a rich habitat for a wide range of species and greatly increases the diversity of our woodlands.
Since 2009, we have re-planted 6.9 km of mixed native hedgerows along our old, lost field hedge lines. We use many fruiting shrubs and nut trees.
Some hedges we cut every year, as dense, low habitat 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 the 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. So far, we have laid 1.9 km of hedges, creating dense wildlife habitat and natural barriers to livestock movement.
Since 1987, we have planted more than 800 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.
Former Deer Park
In 2015, we began fencing deer out of habitats within the deer park. In 2017, we 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.
In the south block, we found three lost woods: these woods still existed in 1945. We will restore these by natural regeneration over the next few years. To start this, we have planted single trees and small blocks of scrub — blackthorn, gorse and fruiting bushes and trees — to welcome wildlife. We already have some natural scrub and tree regeneration.
At the end of 2020, we removed all the deer from the north block of the park and have begun the process of restoring this area too. We have started re-planting lost hedges, and plan to restore lost woods, field boundaries and ponds. With green hay and careful grazing, we will increase the floral diversity of the grassland.
Where the grass has become longer, small mammals, such as field and bank voles, have become numerous. Kestrels and barn owls have been attracted by the abundance of this prey. Insects, particularly grasshoppers and crickets, and spiders, have increased greatly (both in species number and abundance) in this more diverse habitat. Some wildflowers that survived the intense deer grazing have started to recover too. We hope to see this change mirrored in an increase in butterfly numbers.
To create different habitat, we have introduced Mangalitsa pigs to the park to mimic the activity of wild boar. We have begun with just a handful, but are monitoring their activities and the response of the land. We hope they will transport seeds to new areas and break up the dense grass turf. By turning over the soil in their hunt for food, they create patches of bare earth. Seeds held in the seed bank are exposed to light and can germinate, while the open soil allows pioneer shrubs, such as willows, to grow.
Water and Wetlands
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. Common carp is seen as a destructive, invasive species, while bream and tench grew large in the undisturbed lake. These fish species all thrive in nutrient-rich water where they burrow into the banks and silt, reducing water visibility, eroding the banks and preventing aquatic plant growth.
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. The improved visibility, together with a healthy fish population, means the lake now supports a range of fish-eating birds, including herons, egrets and winter visitors such as goosanders.
We have identified seven lost, or ‘ghost’ ponds on the estate (five in the southern park). We began restoring these water bodies by re-excavating a pond filled in during the 1970s. The recovery of this pond is remarkable. Aquatic plants have regenerated from the seed bank in the silt, including species not seen in other ponds on the Estate. It is now home to nine species of dragonflies and damselflies, as well as amphibians and aquatic invertebrates.
Another lost pond was filled in sometime between the earliest Estate map of 1640 and the first edition OS map of 1870. At the end of 2019, we re-excavated this too, and already new plants are emerging. Whirligig and diving beetles have moved in, alongside six species of dragonflies and damselflies in the first year.
Our land is crisscrossed with land drains, despite having steep slopes and little flat ground. We have broken strategic drains to restore the normal surface and soil water flows and to re-wet the land. We aim to re-establish large areas of wet grassland that are most beneficial to wildlife.
We have started to create leaky dams on small streams and in the ghylls. We already encouraged fallen deadwood to do this naturally. We aim to slow the flow of water and help reduce flooding further downstream.
We have created a mini-wetland by slowing a stream and removing the surrounding coarse, monoculture turf. This has allowed water to pool on the surrounding flatter land, catching rainwater from nearby slopes and slowing the rate of flow during flooding. The remaining grass is wetter and will become more diverse over time. This wetland had eight species of damselflies and dragonflies in its first summer.
Elsewhere on the Estate, we coppice trees and shrubs to give ponds sunlight, but leave some others shaded for creatures that prefer low light levels.
Other Conservation Measures
We are part of the UK White Stork Project, working with other landowners and nature conservation organisations to help white storks return to South East England. Our birds are from Poland, having been rescued after injury. They have found a home at Wadhurst Park, as well as other locations in the south east. Their offspring will, we hope, migrate and breed as wild storks.
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 are now in the process of removing unnecessary internal fences, and will manage our cattle movement with NoFence collars.
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.
Birds and Butterflies
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.
Our bird surveys involve two visits by surveyors, timed to detect the widest range of bird species. We use Point Count surveys in larger areas of woodland, and Transect surveys (based on the Breeding Bird Survey) for those sites where the woods are small or absent. These surveys are only undertaken every other year (Point Count surveys one year, Transect surveys the next). On specific sites, we have an additional early survey to detect rare birds that call or nest before other species. The new survey data are in line with previous observations and compare favourably to other conservation sites, not to mention other farms.
One third of the bird species recorded in 2020 are threatened or rare birds (red and amber list species). Several species are doing very well, including song thrush and cuckoo. Their numbers have increased, despite decreasing populations nationally. Sadly, our nightingales and turtle doves have not returned for the last couple of years, reflecting the continuing decline of these species in the UK. We continue to create and manage habitat for both these bird species in the hope that they will return.
We survey monthly for 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
As part of our monitoring program, we survey butterflies across the Estate, following Butterfly Conservation guidelines. Our butterfly surveys are undertaken annually, involving two visits that span the main flight period of the butterfly species found here.
There are good years and poor years. 2019 was a good year for many butterfly species, with very high numbers of grassland butterflies, possibly a response to two hot summers. Sadly, despite another hot summer in 2020, we recorded far fewer numbers of our most common and abundant butterflies. It is unclear why meadow brown, ringlet and gatekeeper butterflies were less abundant. There was a slight decrease in the National trend as well. Butterfly populations do vary, so we wait to see how these species fare this year.
Common grassland butterfly numbers dipped in 2020
The good news is that some of our uncommon species had a good summer in 2020. The numbers of Small Heath, a threatened UK butterfly species requiring conservation action, rose dramatically to over 300 records. Dingy Skippers were present in good numbers. But over several years, and despite careful management, our Grizzled Skippers and White Admiral numbers have continued to decline. While we manage habitat to maintain and increase our butterfly populations, butterfly survival and reproductive success are heavily dependent on weather and climate too, factors we cannot control.
Some uncommon butterflies are doing well
In our standard survey across nine woods, we consistently find dormice, with evidence of breeding in several woods.
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. We have had short-eared owl hunting over the former deer park in winter.
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 , Leisler’s 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.
Our concern for the future is the effects of the climate crisis on habitats and wildlife, food production and natural resources. We will continue to follow best practice for carbon storage in woods and undisturbed grassland, and are encouraging our lost woods to re-establish through natural regeneration, capturing carbon as they grow.
We will continue to restore landscape connectivity, through encouraging scrub development and planting trees and hedges. Introduction of pigs and other livestock will create conditions for self-willed ecosystems that require lower intervention. We are excited by the prospects of new types of habitat developing. But we will continue to maintain our traditionally managed hay meadows and coppice woodland too, since they are part of essential ecosystems also.
On improved grassland and in the old deer park, we are using seed from our hay meadows to diversify the grass sward. We aim to establish 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. Different grazing mouths will create new niches and add diversity to the soil biome.
We will re-wet the land by breaking more land drains on currently improved soil to create valuable marsh and ephemeral pools. More of our lost ponds will be de-silted and restored to high-quality habitat through natural regeneration. The remaining crumbling banks on the lake will be graded to allow vegetation to develop and prevent further erosion.
We are exploring ways to share the estate more with visitors and the local community. We have created a network of permissive footpaths, plan to 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.
Throughout the Estate, we will monitor species and habitat quality. The results will direct our future management. We research other potential conservation measures. Can we reintroduce locally extinct native species, as we have done already with hedgehogs? How can we improve and expand 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 works?
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. In 2019, the last full year we have data for, emissions had dropped by more 100 tonnes. Much work remains to do, especially in tackling renewable heating for draughty old buildings.
Our goal is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and to continuously reduce emissions from third party service providers and users. For example, new cottage tenancy contracts require occupants to use certified renewable electricity tariffs, which we offer at a competitive rate because we negotiate for the Estate as whole.
Greenhouse gas emissions we have not yet been able to eliminate are offset through the Plan Vivo Foundation. This is our contribution towards 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.
The Wider Community
We have begun planting a traditional orchard, with the aim that it becomes a Community Orchard, managed by and for the local Mayfield Community.
Near the Orchard, we have allowed the local MayFacs group to use one of the old farm buildings as a shed for their group activities.
Some of our tenanted properties now house young families. We hope to inspire and encourage them to appreciate nature and the natural world.