The Daily Telegraph

Country Side Monthly

European Landowners Organization

Charlie Burrell - June 2009

I inherited my familyís landed estate from my grandfather in 1985 when I was just 21.  My father had chosen a life in Australia and was not interested in the complexities and costs of running a 200 year-old mansion in the overpopulated southeast of England, but he did keep the endowment that went with the estate, which meant that I had to work for my living! 

Being young & eager and supported by agricultural policies of the time, I maximised production through intensification and tried to add value through diversification, but my business suffered from poor quality agricultural land and a legacy of tiny fields by modern standards.  When in the late 1990ís my manager asked for more millions to recapitalise, I decided enough was enough and started in the process of letting go.  At that time it was the 450 cows, 11 farm workers and farm machinery that went, and farming the land was given to a contractor.  I was accepting the fact that I would no longer have the benefit of those (few) bumper years, but neither would I have the stress of loss. 

I always had a desire to restore the deer park around the main house and agri-subsidies made this possible in 2002, and it was this project that was the catalyst to my eventual conversion of 1000ha of the estate over to a re-wilding project. 

Today roads separate our three huge fenced enclosures which are managed as near as possible by natural processes with the help of four principle large herbivores Ė longhorn cattle, fallow deer, Exmoor ponies and tamworth pigs.  Domestic analogues of the principle species that populated our part of Europe after the last ice age; the animals that drove and shaped forest succession and created the biodiversity before manís influence. 

I have always been an avid natural historian, but had not realised the wildlife potential of my own native countryside until we started this project.  Eight years later our ecologist friends are citing us as a paradigm of landscape scale conservation, and the policy makers have continued to support our efforts. 

In places we assist nature by undoing some of manís influence Ė one such project will see several miles of canalised river re-naturalised with old meanders reinstated and drainage slowed.  There is no doubt in our minds that this will benefit not just water quality, but also those foolish enough to have built on the floodplain downstream. 

In time it will also recreate long forgotten habitat for waders and possibly an ideal environment for the reintroduction of our lost native beaver.  Another project is the reintroduction of the grey partridge and a commitment to a wild game shoot. 

Just a few years in and with a very limited monitoring budget, we have recorded 22 UKBAP Priority species and dozens of invertebrate species of conservation importance.  With our third and final enclosure only now starting its re-wilding, we are hoping for and expecting a massive enhancement of biodiversity. 

We have plenty of critics, mostly tidy-minded neighbours and food production obsessives that feel that somehow I am morally corrupt in letting nature take control.  But I think and hope that we are entering an era where everyone will be expected to take responsibility of the environment seriously, and those like me who can make a big difference will re evaluate their priorities and do what they can. 

Now with a son of my own I sometimes wonder what he will want to achieve from this land.  I suspect that he will have no choice but to follow this course that I have set, and hope that he is content to measure the landís productivity in terms of insect biomass rather than grain and milk production!