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A passion for the farmed landscape is paying dividends for the Denham Estate, near Bury St Edmunds. Suffolk estate reborn as haven for wildlife

A passion for the farmed landscape is paying dividends for the Denham Estate, near Bury St Edmunds.

A farm manager who has planted more than 14,000 trees says that they will benefit the environment and enhance the Suffolk landscape.

Matt Driver says he is determined to maximise the ecological credentials of the Denham Estate, near Bury St Edmunds. The 300ha estate includes 180ha of arable enterprises and 62ha of grassland with more than one third of the land managed for the environment.

“We’re a business first and foremost but we care passionately about the environment,” explains Matt. “Our goal is to be profitable – but it is also to make improvements all around – to make it a better habitat for wildlife and improve biodiversity.”

The Denham Estate was once home to a substantial fruit orchard – and there are still a number of heritage Bramley apple trees. Today, the main enterprises include a 300-strong herd of fallow deer, 600 sheep and combinable crops.

Sustainable farming

In addition to the livestock, the estate grows wheat, barley and oilseed rape – as well as grass for hay and silage, grown to provide home-produced feed. It all contributes to the sustainability of the mixed-farming system.

Grassland is very low input, with no applied fertiliser. “We don’t spray it at all – it’s just purely the animals grazing. It is totally unimproved which is an environmental benefit in itself as well as saving money on inputs.”

Purchased by the late Michael Gliksten in the 1980s, the estate is today run by his wife Cecilia. Matt is the only full-time employee working outdoors on the estate – with a focus on environmental management. The arable side is contracted out and livestock are managed externally too.

“Our land is fairly heavy, so it’s not suited for vegetables,” says Matt. “Our contractors are George E Gittus – we have regular meetings of course, but they take care of everything and are brilliant.”

Once managed in-hand, the deer enterprise is also contracted out. The herd is now owned externally rather than by the estate – and grazes the pasture which has been opened up into parkland rather than smaller fields divided by lots of fences.

Environmental work 

Sheep are reared on a similar basis. The flock is now owned by a local shepherd but continues to graze the estate as it did previously. It all means that Matt has more time to devote to environmental management, rather than running the farm.

“When I started, three of us worked here full-time running the arable and livestock. But we reassessed the way the estate was run as people moved on to other jobs. Working the way we do now makes business sense, and means that each area of the business is run by people with expertise in their own field.”

As well as tree planting, recent years have also seen the creation of a 0.5ha lake, visible from the estate’s main house. Plans include more hedgerow planting and gapping up existing hedges which surround parkland-style permanent pasture and the arable fields.

“Tree planting is something we’re really keen on,” explains Matt.

“We have been members of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme since shortly after its inauguration in 1993. We have over 30kms of field margins on the estate, and beetle banks to encourage wildlife and providing areas for owls to hunt. As well as whole fields containing assorted diverse habitats.

Stewardship features 

“It is something we’ve really developed. We’ve planted about 14,000 trees – including 40 different species and 7ha of new woodland – around the estate in different blocks over the past two or three years.

“The lake is a great looking feature, but it’s there purely for environmental reasons. There’s no financial benefit to having it – but again it is about creating a more diverse habitat that benefits wildlife.”

Other environmental features managed under a higher-level stewardship (HLS) agreement include 6m buffer strips around arable land, floristically enhanced grass margins, wild bird seed mixtures, beetle banks and nectar flower mixes.

“We have field margins around almost every arable field. Squaring off awkward field edges, and removing the least productive areas of arable land has improved the efficiency of the farming operation but it has other benefits too.”

“It’s all about balance. Some will be pollen and nectar, some will be wild bird seed, some will just be grass and some will be floristically enhanced grassland. It’s about catering for different forms of wildlife.”

Some areas of HLS generate a better return than others. Wild bird seed mixtures, for example, are much more expensive to establish. But a better return is achieved – financially at least – from field margins which are only cultivated once a year.

Grass margins offer a good return too. They are mown once annually – to prevent them from encroaching into the main field. Grass is cut on a rotational basis to encourage wildflowers at different times of the year.  

Newly planted trees are fenced to keep away rabbits and deer. Matt did all the fencing himself, with the help of his father, to keep costs down. He also strims the area between newly planted trees to give them the best chance of survival.

“Under the woodland creation scheme you have to have a certain percentage of native species. We’ve a mixture of native deciduous trees and exotic species – there are about 40 different species altogether.

“We have chosen trees which we knew would work well with the soil types here – while also providing seeds and berries or a nice and warm winter roosting site. So we’ve got a mix of deciduous trees, evergreens and some pine in pockets as well.

Towards the future 

“It’s all about diversity and future-proofing what we do – the increasing prevalence of deadly tree diseases mean we could lose one fifth of our woodland if we had chosen just five species and then became infected with something like ash dieback.”

“I like having as many natives as possible. It is the same with the orchards we have on the estate. I’m planning new areas of orchard planting – if I can get traditional Suffolk orchard trees then that’s brilliant.” 

The estate’s environmental work has been recognised by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It is studying the benefit it provides for species of bumblebees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, mammals, and flowers.

Landscape features include a 12th century motte and bailey castle – a scheduled monument protected for its historical value. It was used for the launching of the East of England Rural Heritage scheme in 2005.

But the estate is looking to the future – not just the past. A new farm shop recently opened as an important diversification. The E&G Butchery and Farm Shop offers produce grown and reared on the farm, as well as by other local food producers.

“The aim is to make sure the estate is in better environmental standing than when I started here,” says Matt. “Of course, we have the arable and livestock side to the business – but my passion is to make sure that overall it works for wildlife too.”

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