The National Trust is piecing back together a 19th century landscape using a Victorian survey map and aerial photographs taken by the Royal Air Force after World War II.

The project, which will take a decade to complete, will see native trees planted including the rare black poplar, white willow and oak re-planted in the Grade 2 listed landscape at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

A total of 227 trees will be planted making the project one of the largest and most ambitious wood pastures the conservation charity has created with the aim of establishing a species rich, native wood pasture to attract more wildlife and to increase biodiversity.  

The Trust will also be recreating ponds and planting areas of scrub to create a resilient habitat that will be more resilient to climate change and endure for centuries to come.

Wood pasture and parkland is a rare and threatened habitat, in decline since the 1950s due to the repurposing of land to help feed the nation after World War II.  

Despite purchasing Oxburgh Hall to save it from demolition in 1951, the National Trust was only able to purchase a few acres of the wider estate at that time.  But, in 2017, the charity was able to acquire an additional 125 acres, and now work is underway to restore 175 acres of the original 400 acres of parkland habitat.

The land, which had previously been farmed with arable crops has been left fallow while the charity conducted research to assess whether the land could be restored as part of its estate management planning.

Conservationist and historian, Dr Sarah Rutherford, from SR Historic Environment has worked closely with the estate team, researching the project.  She says: “Using an Ordnance Survey map from 1904 we have been able to research details of how the landscape looked when it was at its peak.  

“We’ve also used RAF aerial photographs from 1946 which show the park before its sale in 1951 which clearly show numerous trees.  Fortunately, we have the sales details for the trees sold at auction (to be cut for timber) and we’re using this to identify the individual locations and species of trees for re-planting after making some adjustments for the impacts of current challenges such as climate change and ash dieback where the historic species would no longer thrive.”

Working in partnership with Natural England and Historic England, the first phase[4] of the project is underway with the team aiming to create a parkland landscape similar to the ones at Ickworth in Suffolk or Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire.  

The first phase includes re-seeding areas of the parkland which haven’t regenerated naturally with a very diverse seed mix to create 32 hectares of wood pasture.  A wide range of wildflower and traditional grass seed will be sown, with some areas left to regenerate naturally with local species.  A further nine hectares of existing wood pasture habitat will be restored.

And, in the winter the first 150 trees will be planted in the newly established grassland areas using satellite positioning to locate the exact spot to plant trees according to the original parkland design.

A wide range of wildlife is set to benefit from this restoration project, from deadwood-loving insects such as the nationally scarce hornet moth to woodland birds such as lesser spotted woodpecker. Once fully matured, the wood pasture will also create new roosting sites for bats such as the brown long-eared and barbastelle. 

The health of the soil will also be improved due to the less intensive management needed for permanent grasslands, which will allow the original structure to slowly recover. Wildflowers including bird’s foot trefoil and knapweed will start to appear over the next few years to benefit invertebrates and as the parkland matures, the soil’s fungal networks will recover which is when rarer species, such as orchids will begin to reappear.

Area Ranger, Tom Day is overseeing the project; “We’re really excited to get started. This area of the Grade 2 listed historic parkland can be seen from the hall and until a few years ago, was the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. You can see from old maps, the landscape once looked very different to what it does today.

“The project will see ditches re-profiled and native rare breed cattle, such as red poll which originated in East Anglia, brought back to graze the land.  We’ll be planting 227 trees over the next two years to grow alongside the ten ancient trees that remain in the landscape and recreating areas of scrub, lowland meadows and ponds. This will bring back the feel of the 19th century parkland, as well as create new habitats supporting a rich and diverse range of wildlife like Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, common frogs, smooth newts, snipe and stone curlew within a few years.

“Wood pasture is the closest habitat type to the original landscape that is thought to have covered most of Britain in the Post Ice age – Neolithic period, and as such makes the perfect home for a variety of butterfly species from Brimstones to common blues, plus many species of native and migratory birds including meadow pipit, spotted flycatcher & garden warbler.”
The wood pasture will be grazed by native breeds of cattle, and occasionally sheep.  They are ideally suited to these conditions and helping conserve these breeds for future generations is an important outcome of this project.

Russell Clement, General Manager at Oxburgh Hall said: “This project will root Oxburgh Hall back in the landscape once more and as well as creating habitats for nature to flourish and thrive.  We’ll also be opening up access to visitors so that visitors can explore the wider estate, and also offering people chances to get involved with the work.

“The parkland has been used for arable farming for more than 70 years and although we’re moving to a type of farming which is more aligned with creating woodland pasture we’ve received incredible support from our neighbouring farms, the former land owners, tenant graziers and our partners to restore this rare and vital landscape.

“It’s humbling and a privilege to be part of a restoration which will still be in its infancy in my lifetime, knowing it will benefit people and nature for centuries to come.”

The £190,000 project is being funded thanks to the Natural England countryside stewardship scheme, Historic England and the generosity of National Trust members and supporters.  

For more information visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall  

1890 Three Game Keepers at Oxburgh Hall. Credit: National Trust
1900-1910 Moat Work. Credit: National Trust – Jeannette Heard
Moat Work 1900-1910. Credit: National Trust – Jeannette Heard

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