Holkham Estate has a unique history of farming, shooting and conservation. The four-course rotation system was famously popularised here by Coke of Norfolk; while his son, the second Earl of Leicester, started the sport of driven game shooting.
For more than 300 years, the Earls of Leicester have taken it in turns to enhance the aesthetic value of the Estate by planting thousands of trees, but more importantly, to create a rich and varied habitat.
Due to modern farming methods, the Estate is now much more intensively farmed. Holkham Farming Company Ltd operates as a farm contractor over about 2,850 hectares of estate land. The current rotation is based around sugar beet, wheat, barley and oilseed rape with root crops such as potatoes, carrots and parsnips grown where irrigation is available.
Holkham Emerald is a new joint venture operation between the Holkham Estate and Emerald Crops Limited. The intention of this new company is to develop a sizeable vegetable production operation on the Estate, utilising Holkham land and water and Emerald marketing and growing skills.
The livestock enterprises consists of a flock of 100 sheep and a herd of 190 predominantly South Devon suckler beef cattle which graze the NNR in summer.
The Holkham Farming Company has a Conservation Policy, which is operated over all the farms. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, virtually all headlands now have a six-metre grass strip between crop and hedgerow. We also leave areas of unsprayed crop margins around farms, where no fertiliser or agro chemicals are used on the first six or 12 metres of crop. This gives cover for young birds and a bank of insects for food. In the Deer Park, 1,600 acres (650 hectares) of arable land have been returned back to grass.
Set-aside is managed for wildlife and wild bird cover crops for seed-eating birds such as linnet, greenfinch, yellowhammer, chaffinch, goldfinch, redpoll, brambling and tree sparrow. Set-aside is also a valuable habitat for ground-nesting birds. The Estate has just taken over an area of arable land that will be managed using set-aside for ground nesting birds such as skylark and lapwing.
Thanks to this careful management, we can boast a healthy population of many species that are considered rare or endangered.
Skylarks, wild grey partridge, lapwings and barn owls are a common sight on the Estate. There are also water voles on the Rivers Burn and Stiffkey, which meander through Holkham land.
We have a stunning 35-acre lake in the Park (over which we do not shoot, but leave as a sanctuary), along with many ponds that we use for duck flighting in the winter. In the summer, these wetlands are home to breeding duck, geese, newts, frogs, toads, kingfishers and dragonflies.
Holkham possesses a wide array of flora and fauna. In the spring, there are delicate yellow primroses, cowslips and twayblade; while in high summer, the ground beneath the mature oak, beech and chestnut trees in the Deer Park, is carpeted with nettles. Ordinary to look at and apparently useless, these actually provide the habitat for a host of butterflies, and valuable shelter in which the deer give birth and hide their fawns. Later in the year, various orchids also emerge and an abundance of fumitory ensures a food source for the turtledoves.
We can all take comfort from the fact that these species continue to thrive at Holkham, but they do so as the result of careful husbandry. The majority of these habitats would not and could not be maintained, were it not for the shooting interests of the Estate.
The Estate employs a team of gamekeepers dedicated to wild game, conservation and countryside management. A predator control programme is exercised within the law, which gives all ground nesting birds and mammals, such as hares and water voles, a better chance of survival.
Wildlife is fairly constant, but its surroundings are not, so it is in our own interest to study conditions and try to correct or enhance the habitat. This can be done by improving what we already have, but also by creating new habitats for specific reasons. Cover crops such as kale and triticale, and crops for producing insects and seeds at the right time of year, not only benefit game birds, but a myriad of songbirds and other creatures too.
A recent Farm Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) survey, found that 29% of farmland birds (including many types of finch and bunting) were found on only 1% of the land, namely the game cover crops planted for shooting.