Historic painting helps inspire 50 year vision for carbon and nature rich landscape at Devon Estate

Press release
Rediscovered painting inspires 50 year vision for nature and landscapes at Killerton
Published : 15 Jun 2021

The National Trust is taking inspiration from a 19th Century painting of the Killerton Estate in Devon to help create a 50 year vision for the landscape boosting its ability to store carbon by improving and expanding habitats and creating areas rich in wildlife.

The painting, believed to be by the 11th Baronet, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland whose family gifted Killerton to the National Trust in 1944, depicts a healthy and diverse landscape rich in mature trees and hedgerows with areas of scrub with roaming rugged highland cattle, giving a snapshot of the historical estate.

But, instead of turning back the clock, the conservation charity is now aiming to capture the very essence of the landscape with a 15 month project to reconnect the river with its floodplain to reduce flooding; to restore and plant 4km of new hedgerows, and to plant and establish 18 hectares of new woodland, five hectares of agroforestry, 40 hectares of wood pasture and planting 200 trees in hedgerows.      

Paul Hawkins, Project Manager at the National Trust said: “Nurturing what we have, has got to be the first step of a green recovery.

“Our plans involve thinking about what we’ll need the landscape to deliver in 50 years, and how we can make that happen.  Nature is incredibly powerful but sometimes we need to give it a helping hand.

“We want to ensure the estate now evolves to capture more carbon and to help the land, wildlife and livestock cope with more extreme weather events.

“Currently just under 10 per cent of the Killerton Estate is priority habitat – and the combination of work we are doing to protect and enhance these areas together with changes in management should boost nature on the estate and hopefully demonstrate to others what can be achieved.

“The estate as it is now may look green and beautiful but the reality is that so much of the wildlife that was on the estate when the picture was painted, has been lost.  Species of plants and habitats are unable to adapt to the impacts of climate change which could lead to extinctions and impact the functioning of the ecosystems humans depend on.” 

The joining up of habitats is fundamental to the success of landscape restoration as set out in the ground-breaking 2010 Making Space for Nature report.  Healthy hedgerows and river corridors can act as fantastic ‘networks’ for wildlife to travel along.   

Paul continued: “We are aiming to expand, improve and join up our nature spaces to help wildlife thrive, so it’s easier for species to move across an otherwise fragmented landscape in response to climate change and to build resilience.

“Where we are establishing and planting more trees the soils will be better protected and there will be more permanent cover and habitat for a wide range of wildlife, from dormice to woodpeckers.

“Where we are planting new hedgerows and changing their management we hope to attract more wildlife such as butterflies and bats that will use these as corridors to join up habitats across the estate.  In the future this work should help us give visitors even more opportunities to get close to wildlife.”

This latest phase of Killerton’s evolution will be funded thanks to just over £750,000 from the Department for the Environment and Rural Affair’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund (GRCF), working together in partnership with Woodland Trust, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West and a number of farm tenants on the 2,600 hectare estate.     

Jo Neville from Westcountry Rivers Trust, one of the partners in the project said: “Our primary aim is to enhance the site for biodiversity.  

“By restoring the floodplain we aim to encourage natural processes and build resilience.  It is currently dominated by short grassland with very few areas suitable for standing water.  We want to increase structure and species diversity through the creation of habitats including scrub, woodland, wetland and wildflower habitats to attract a huge range of species and wildflowers.

“The work we’re doing will help improve water quality, carbon sequestration and connect people with nature.  We’ll be undertaking surveys before and after the works to monitor how the site is changing and the benefits to wildlife.  Once habitats have developed we will also consider the potential to introduce species such as water vole.” 

Ros Kerslake at The National Lottery Heritage Fund – who are administering the GRCF on behalf of the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) – said: “We are so pleased to support this project which aims to restore and regenerate of our natural environment.  This project will have huge benefit to our beautiful countryside and wildlife, and will also support jobs, health and wellbeing, which are vitally important as we begin to emerge from the coronavirus crisis.” 

The Killerton estate is also of national importance for its population of ancient trees.  Through a separate GRCF funded project, in partnership with the Woodland Trust, the team will be stripping out invasive species that can choke woodlands to help protect existing ancient and veteran trees.  A detailed tree survey of the veteran and ancient trees will also form a blueprint for their future care.

Eleanor Lewis, the Woodland Trust's Devon partnership lead said: “These beautiful old trees are irreplaceable natural monuments, providing vital habitats.  Killerton is rich in them, with over 515 ancient and veteran trees already recorded. But we know there are many more - estimates suggest there could be more than 100 significant trees that have yet to be discovered and recorded. Once we know where they are and what condition they are in, we can help the National Trust to protect them and ensure they continue to thrive for many years to come.”

The GRCF funding has also created new jobs.  The new countryside apprentice, Harry Whiting, already has strong links to the estate due to his great grandfather being a former head gardener for the Acland family in the 1950s.  

Harry says: “My great grandfather, Henry Thorne, joined the Killerton estate as the Acland’s boot polisher when he was 12, and then worked his way up before retiring as head gardener. 

“Both my mum and grandma were also born on the estate.  I was aware growing up that my family came from this area, but I wasn’t aware until after I had applied for the apprenticeship, that there was such a long history between the Killerton estate and my family.  

“It was amazing finding out that so many family members were either born, lived or worked on the estate before I came here. 

“It’s really nice as it feels as though things have come full circle, I’m now working on the land my family have looked after and lived on.  Plus now I can also play my part in carrying on the family tradition of caring for the plants and wildlife on the estate for future generations to enjoy.”


Picture editor’s notes
Images and b-roll footage to accompany this story can be found in the link below. They should be used only in conjunction with this story, and credited as indicated.


B-roll footage of interviews with apprentice Harry Whiting, ranger Fiona Hailstone and some general views of the Killerton Estate can be accessed here: