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Our work outdoors at Calke Abbey

Image shows a tree and the ground covered in frost in the parkland at Calke Abbey
The parkland in January at Calke Abbey | © National Trust/Chris Lacey

With over 600 acres of ancient parkland, historic walled gardens and pleasure grounds, there are lots of green spaces to look after at Calke Abbey. Every day, a team of rangers, gardeners and volunteers work hard to keep Calke’s park and gardens alive, so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come. From wildlife and woodland management to historic planting, discover more about the work we do outdoors.

Our work in the parkland

With so much countryside to look after, the rangers and a group of volunteers work outdoors all year round to manage the parkland and wildlife at Calke.

This includes routine maintenance such as repairing footpaths, fences, gates and stiles, as well as seasonal work such as haymaking, woodland management and caring for wildflower meadows.

As well as their day-to-day work looking after the estate, the rangers help to manage larger projects outdoors at Calke. Recent projects include re-introducing a rare butterfly to the estate, which you can read about below, and repairing the dry-stone walls around the estate.

Managing the woodlands

Calke is home to ancient woodlands, National Nature Reserves and veteran trees – some of which are over 1,000 years old, and these wooded areas must be managed to keep them healthy. This includes regular coppicing, hedge-laying and occasional tree-felling to ensure the trees have enough space and light to grow.

You might wonder why there are so many fallen branches left on the ground around the estate. This is because they provide valuable habitats for insects and beetles – earning some parts of Calke the status of Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Planting future veteran trees

In recent years we’ve planted more than 10,000 new trees in the wider estate as part of a collaboration with Native Forestry, to help expand Calke's existing woodlands and create valuable new habitats.

We planted a mixture of deciduous, native trees such as oak, beech, hornbeam and cherry, as well as hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel. Some of these trees may one day be classed as veteran trees, when they reach a ripe old age!

A close up of an old tree with spindly branches and blue sky in the background.
The Old Man of Calke in the winter | © National Trust/James Woodcock

Caring for Calke’s wildlife

The rangers are also responsible for the health and wellbeing of the wildlife and habitats here at Calke, including a flock of rare-breed Portland sheep and a herd of red and fallow deer.

Springtime is lambing season for the Portlands, which are born at Home Farm and cared for by the ranger team until they can be moved into the Walled Kitchen Garden. This involves monitoring the ewes before they give birth, trimming hooves, vaccinating the lambs and tagging them so they can be identified.

Over in the Deer Park, autumn gives rise to rutting season – a busy time of year for the rangers, who can be seen feeding the deer through winter. The team also manage the 67-acre enclosure, to ensure it maintains its National Nature Reserve status.

A haven for butterflies

In 2018, the rangers embarked on a project to reintroduce a rare butterfly to the estate, the Grizzled Skipper, working in partnership with Butterfly Conservation and Natural England.

The landscape was prepared by removing tree and shrub cover, opening areas of bare soil and planting wild strawberries for the butterflies to feed from. In the summer of 2018, ten adult butterflies were released into the vegetated areas, with further Grizzled Skippers introduced the following year.

Every summer, ranger volunteers complete butterfly counts, called transects, to record butterfly species and their numbers. This vital work helps us to monitor butterfly species like the Grizzled Skipper, and ensure that we maintain a healthy environment for butterflies and other wildlife.

Two sheep grazing the parkland at Calke Abbey next to a fallen tree branch.
Sheep grazing the parkland at Calke Abbey | © National Trust/ Sue Richardson

Our work in the garden

Calke’s gardens are presented much like the rest of Calke, following the ethos of ‘repair not restore’. While the gardeners maintain a very high horticultural standard, with stunning displays throughout the year, they also work hard to preserve the old garden buildings in their state of faded grandeur.

The garden is bursting with flowers and vegetables that would’ve been planted when the Harpur Crewe family lived at Calke, so that visitors can experience an historic working garden today.

As well as day-to-day gardening, the gardeners oversee larger projects to preserve garden buildings such as the Orangery, which has seen its dome restored since the National Trust took over its care, and new tunnels have been uncovered beneath the garden.

Planting in the Pleasure Grounds

Before the National trust took over Calke Abbey, the deer roamed free in the Pleasure Grounds, which caused extensive damage to the trees and shrubs. As such, the Walled Garden was visible from the house, which wouldn’t have been the case historically.

The National trust decided to restore this woody shelter to hide the Walled Gardens and allow shady walks, as a contrast to the formally planted main gardens. Replanting started in the 1990s with tree planting, and then the shrub layer was put in.

We’re now in the final phase of the planting project, which has more recently seen extensive bulb planting in the Pleasure Grounds to replace the herbaceous layer – this includes snowdrops, fritillaries, wood anemones, camassias, glory-in-the-snow, squills, daffodils and cyclamen.

Coppicing the hazel

As part of our garden maintenance, and to maintain enough light for the bulbs to thrive, we coppice the hazel in the Pleasure Grounds on a seven-year rotation. All hazels poles and brash are used to stake plants and build supports in the Walled Gardens.

Some of these hazels have been aged to the early 1700s and are believed to have been planted as a nuttery in an earlier walled orchard. Coppicing should extend the life of these plants, ensuring that they can be enjoyed for many years to come.

A rare surviving auricula theatre

One of the highlights in Calke’s gardens is the auricula theatre in the Flower Garden. This is a rare survival of display gardening from the nineteenth century, and was originally decorated with blinds to create a separate space from the rest of the Flower Garden.

The auricula theatre was designed to show off prize specimens of auriculas in tiers, and to preserve the blooms for as long as possible.

Today, the gardeners maintain collections of snowdrops, auriculas and pelargoniums for display on the theatre, all of which have strong links to Calke.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

A view of the house at Calke Abbey from across the Pleasure Grounds, framed by green leaves on a sunny day


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