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 3,000 hectares of estate land. The rotation is based around oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter and spring barley, sugar beet and potatoes.
Holkham Emerald is a joint venture operation between the Holkham Estate and Emerald Crops Limited. The company has a sizeable potato operation on the estate, utilising Holkham land, water and growing skills and the skills of Emerald marketing.
The livestock enterprises consists of a flock of approximately 100 sheep and a herd of 210 predominantly South Devon cross suckler beef cattle which graze Holkham Nature Reserve in the summer.
Holkham Farming Company has a conservation policy, which is operated over all of the farms under ELS and HLS agri-environment schemes. We also leave areas of unsprayed crop margins around farms, where no fertiliser or agro chemicals are used. This gives cover for young birds and a bank of insects for food. The agri-environment schemes are 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. In the Deer Park, 1,600 acres (650 hectares) of arable land have been returned back to grass.
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. 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 chicory, maize, triticale and sorgham 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.