Our work on the estate at Chartwell
The countryside team at Chartwell play a busy role throughout the West Kent countryside to manage and support nature. Here are just some of the ways that they have been working on the estate and wider environs over the past two to three years.
Woodland management is a major area of conservation work for our ranger team across the 10 hectares of woodland at Chartwell. People have been managing woodlands for thousands of years by harvesting material for both commercial and domestic use, clearance for dwellings and in the case of West Kent, quarrying. Woodlands were also used for the grazing of animals, which in Kent was often pigs, through a process known as Pannage.
Outdoor conservation management and especially woodland management is a very complex process. The decision to carry out a particular management regime at a site is dependent on multiple factors such as biological and ecological survey data, historical data, natural processes and current species compositions. All decisions, however, are made keeping long-term strategy in mind and thinking about the bigger picture – all of nature has links and associations far beyond what can easily be seen.
Health and safety
Health and safety can be one of the biggest influences on decision making. If a tree poses a danger to visitors, if it is near a path or building, for instance, then this work will be prioritised. This could mean felling, reducing branches or other safety work. Where possible paths are re-routed, which can help us avoid carrying out more extreme measures.
In the spring, nature surveys begin with different species surveyed throughout the year including birds, butterflies and dragonflies. Expert staff and volunteers head out around different areas of the West Kent countryside to identify and record the different types of mammals or invertebrates they spot throughout the day. These are then recorded and tracked.
These surveys are not only for our own information but are sent out into regional and national programmes, too, allowing species to be tracked up and down the country, informing conservation efforts and helping spot any changes in patterns.
Clearing and thinning
Paths and woodland tracks (rides), need active management to allow more light in between the trees and down to the floor, creating a richer environment for wildlife. This is carried out by ‘selective thinning’, whereby trees will be selected for felling based on species, age and structure. In some cases, this may include mature healthy trees.
In order to help create a varied habitat suitable to the widest possible assemblage of species, rangers also carry out a technique called ‘veteranisation’ whereby a ring is cut around the bark of a tree in order to allow it to die standing which creates a rich habitat for invertebrates as it decays and dies.
Coppicing is one of the many ways we look after our woodland here at Chartwell. We use the ancient technique to encourage lost habitats back and help support a wider diversity of nature.
Chestnut coppicing at Chartwell
The Chartwell estate has 10 hectares of woodland, 2 hectares of which is sweet chestnut. The long poles cut from the coppiced stools are processed by our Ranger team into fencing stakes, bollards and gate posts which are then used across the wider estate.
It is likely that this would have originally been planted to provide the house and cottages with a continued source of firewood, charcoal, poles for growing hops and other necessary projects requiring wood, such as for fencing.
Since the demand for wood products declined and the keeping and grazing of animals became more intensive and centralised, these traditional management techniques such as copping have fallen out of use, and our woods have become dense, dark, overgrown places of few species.
Rejuvenating the woods
The copse at Chartwell is overstood and, before work started to manage the woodland better, it had not been regularly cut for over 30 years.
Having re-surveyed the area, mapped, and divided it into 10 coupes (and area of felled trees) a rotation began. Each year one coupe gets cut on rotation and the ranger team at Chartwell are now well over halfway through the process of thinning out all the sweet chestnuts.
It may look drastic, but coppicing is essential conservation work for some of our best loved woodland wildlife to survive.
Since the winter of 2019/20 the ranger team have been working with our tenant farmer at Grange Farm to restore several old field boundaries back to their former glory. They have planted over 1000 different native species to make sure that the hedgerows we build are perfectly suited to their environment, and that they are as beneficial as possible to the surrounding wildlife.
Why are we planting new hedges?
In the post-war era, a vast number of hedges were removed from farmland due to government-led farming policies at the time. The aim was to create larger fields in which to sow increasing amounts of high-yield crops, which could then be harvested by bigger and better farming machinery.
This unfortunately led to a catastrophic decline in farmland wildlife; a problem which is now being reversed by government-funded hedge re-planting schemes.
Hedges are a crucial source of protection, shelter, and food for a range of wildlife. Their presence and interconnection across the landscape acts as a sort of wildlife superhighway, allowing for various species to move around freely whilst keeping safe from predators.
The hedges also offer nesting, breeding and foraging habitat. An increase in a range of species of birds, mammals and invertebrates is expected once the hedges are fully established.
A variety of hedge species have been planted to maximise the benefit to wildlife. This will not only guarantee a range of flowering times for pollinating insects, different food sources for birds and mammals, but will offer a visually appealing hedge.
When planting hedges, it is important not to plant just for plantings sake. The species selected must be native to the area and able to grow in the specific soil type. As such, they should be found locally and certainly sourced from local suppliers, in order that they are well-accustomed to the local micro-climates.
It is the norm in native English hedge planting to plant a mix of species, particularly in rural areas to keep the overall hedge stock-proof, to help wildlife flourish, and to be aesthetically pleasing. Most native species used in hedges can also be planted as trees or shrubs in gardens and woodland.
The ranger team at Chartwell look after the wider estate and also large amounts of the surrounding West Kent countryside, including nearby Grange Farm. Since winter 2019/20 the team has been bringing three ponds back to life, providing an abundant habitat for wildlife.
What causes ponds to silt up?
All land undergoes a natural process called succession, through which areas of woodland or vegetation change and develop over time. Generally, succession is beneficial. It’s the same process which allows forest or woodland to naturally regenerate after it has been destroyed.
In the UK, succession means that most lowland habitat will eventually succeed to woodland. This can include bodies of water that, without either natural or artificial intervention or natural flow, can silt up, dry out, and be colonised by trees. As a result, the species that once depended on the water body then die out or find somewhere else to thrive.
The ponds at Grange Farm
Before this project work by our ranger team, the ponds at Grange Farm had not been properly managed for over a decade.
The number of trees growing in and around the ponds – along with all the associated leaf litter drop during winter – meant the ponds were starting to dry out in summer. Partial drying out is certainly beneficial for some wildlife, but we wanted to retain water all year round in other parts of the ponds.
What did the work entail?
There are a few key actions that were carried out as part of the process. Around 60% of the trees surrounding the pond were selectively felled and thinned, which allowed the remaining trees to grow larger and healthier. In turn, this created a much better environment for returning wildlife.
‘Windrows’ and habitat piles were created and some manual dredging of the silt layer was carried out. The aim was to create a habitat mosaic of species, age and structure. Local wildlife has certainly taken a liking to the new surroundings. Kingfishers and several species of dragonflies have been spotted making use of the small pond.
Find out about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into conserving parts of the garden at Chartwell, including a wildflower meadow, opening up views and flower border replanting
The greenhouses have played an important role in gardening at Chartwell, and a project in 2018 saw them restored to become energy efficient and more sustainable.
Discover more about the extraordinary life of Sir Winston Churchill in this permanent exhibition at Chartwell, including five must-see items from the curator.
The Trust’s story at Chartwell began whilst Winston Churchill and his family were still in residence. Discover how we helped to preserve a significant piece of British history.
Chartwell’s estate and surrounding countryside offers far-reaching views across the Weald. Walk in the footsteps of one of our founders Octavia Hill when you explore Mariners Hill.
Enjoy the views that the Churchills chose Chartwell for, and explore the garden they created and loved, from Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden, to the Walled Garden Sir Winston helped build.
We believe that nature, beauty and history are for everyone. That’s why we’re supporting wildlife, protecting historic sites and more. Find out about our work.
Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.