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Our work on the estate at Polesden Lacey

View across a field at Polesden Lacey, Surrey
Green pasture surrounded by woodlands on the estate at Polesden Lacey, Surrey | © National Trust Images/Christopher Davies

The Polesden Lacey estate is not only a beautiful backdrop to the Edwardian house and garden but is also a 1600-acre treasure trove of chalk grassland, ancient woodland, and habitats that we look after.

The background of the estate

The Polesden Lacey estate was bequeathed to the National Trust by Margaret Greville in 1942 and Ranmore Common was added in 1959, when it was given to the Trust by Lord Ashcombe. A further 130 acres were acquired in 2022 through generous legacies left to the National Trust. The team of National Trust rangers and volunteers ensure the estate withing the Surrey Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) continues to thrive, whilst still providing access for everyone to enjoy it.

The estate today

Historically the estate would've been managed for agriculture and the woodlands providing resources such as firewood, charcoal, and building materials for the surrounding area. These days, the estate is still managed in a similar way, using a mix of traditional and modern techniques. Our ranger team carefully looks after all our habitats to ensure the best outcomes for nature and wildlife.

A working landscape

600 acres of the estate comprise two working farms. We work closely with the tenant farmers to develop working practices that help protect the chalk grassland, hedgerows and registered parkland whilst continuing to grow crops and graze livestock. We use livestock to graze certain areas at specific times of the year, allowing chalk grassland species to flower, providing food sources for endangered butterflies. Doing this helps us re-establish our species-rich chalk grassland and meadows.

Chalk grassland

Polesden valley has all the key features required for chalk grassland, with south facing slopes and chalk-rich soil. Chalk grassland is some of the most species rich habitats in the world, often holding more than 40 species of flowering plants per square metre. This in turn attracts a huge array of insects, including many butterflies.

We’re working to re-establish our 87 acres of chalk grassland. It requires nutrient-poor soil, which is why it’s always on a slope as the rain helps to wash the nutrients off. In addition to this, well-timed grazing helps keep the nutrient content low. We’ve been working in collaboration with our tenant farmer, Steve Conisbee, for a number of years, to ensure grazing is done when the chalk grasslands need it.

Grazing

We graze with cattle in late summer and early autumn, helping cut back the grass and tread in all the wildflower seeds with their heavy hooves. Over the winter we continue to graze the slopes with sheep to help keep the nutrient content low, as all the nutrients from the grass go into the sheep, not the soil. Then in spring we take all the livestock out and let the wildflowers flourish.

So far, the work has paid off, with rare bee orchids and common blue butterflies already enjoying the areas, and we’re hoping to see a return of the chalkhill blue butterfly.

A Chalkhill Blue male butterfly in July at Lighthouse Down, Kent
A male Chalkhill Blue butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Woodland management

The estate forms part of the Surrey Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and comprises Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), ancient woodland, and wood pasture. In conjunction with Natural England, we act as stewards of this extremely special area to ensure it remains species-rich and encourage returns of a wider variety of flora and fauna. This includes giving nature a helping hand though careful woodland management, including coppicing and thinning, removal of plantation wood and felling diseased trees.

The importance of coppicing

Coppicing involves the periodic cutting back of trees or shrubs to ground level, leaving them to sprout new stems from the cut stumps. The woodland we coppice at Polesden Lacey is split into compartments that gets coppiced on rotation around every 10–15 years. This encourages new and stronger growth in these trees and shrubs, meaning they get a longer life expectancy. It also allows more light to reach the woodland floor, which results in the perfect habitat for bluebells, primroses, anemones and violets.

Close-up of an English bluebell flower stalk at Hardcastle Crags
An English Bluebell growing on the estate at Polesden Lacey, Surrey | © National Trust Images / Andrew Marsh

Ash dieback

Unfortunately, we’re also having to spend a lot of our time and resources on dealing with ash dieback. Being an airborne disease with no cure it’s expected to kill 80% of our ash trees. Once infected it’s usually fatal and can cause the tree to start dropping limbs and becoming a safety risk. The ranger team are felling any severely affected ash trees close to paths. Trees affected further into the woodlands are left so we can see which specimens display tolerance to the disease – these trees will then be able to reproduce.

Ancient woodland

We have sections of ancient woodland pocketed throughout the estate. The ranger team host regular walks and talks to help people understand the importance of these biodiversity-rich woodlands that are unique and complex communities of plants, fungi, insects and other micro-organisms with centuries of undisturbed soil and accumulated decaying wood.

Wood pasture

Wood pasture is a traditional aspect of the English landscape and of great historical and ecological importance. It comprises a mix of habitats from denser wooded groves to more open areas with species-rich grassland and large dead and decaying pieces of wood.

We’ve recently restored parts of Ranmore Common at South Wood and Stony Rock back to wood pasture which will increase the biodiversity and create a rich and diverse environment for wildlife to thrive. To achieve this, we have been clearing the scrub and vegetation under bigger trees, until they are once again open grown parkland trees. In the future, we hope to introduce cattle grazing here to help retain the area as wood pasture and reduce the need for human intervention.

Habitat restoration

We’re also doing our bit in supplying wildlife with suitable habitats to ensure they remain here for a long time. Some of these solutions are straightforward, such as ensuring we leave fallen trees, stumps, and branches available for bugs and birds, or developing our chalk grassland to encourage the return of grassland habitat, all solutions which are part of our wider estate management plans.

Other works include installing a wide variety of bird boxes, making sure we follow very specific measurements and requirements for certain birds. We have owl boxes, kestrel boxes, and recently we installed swift boxes as part of conservation work on the historic water tower at the main entrance to the gardens. The UK swift population has declined by 57% in the last 20 years, so hopefully the addition of these boxes will help encourage the population to rise again.

Female barn owl owlet at half Moon house, Manaton, Devon

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