Just 12% of Sandringham Estate has been put aside for natural habitat
Updated: Feb 28
Important note: this research features significant data gaps and the figures below may change if Sandringham Estate can provide more accurate, up to date information.
Who Owns Norfolk? (WON) Recently published the first publicly available and modern map of the Sandringham Estate. This was created by combining a mix of publicly available but hard to find data: INSPIRE Index Polygons and HM Land Registry Titles. This estate was originally purchased in 1862 by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who later went on to become King Edward VII. At that time, the estate consisted of just 8,000 acres; however, over time the Royal family has gradually purchased surrounding lands and increased its Sandringham holdings. Based on the information that is currently publicly available, Who Owns Norfolk estimates that this estate is now approximately 19,967 acres in size. This is roughly in line with figures reported publicly in the media and on the Sandringham Estate website, and makes Sandringham the second largest private estate in Norfolk (after Holkham Estate, which is 25,000 acres in size).
As we have stated before, large landowners have ultimate control of how their land is used, including whether it used to benefit nature. The UN body tasked with assessing the state of global biodiversity (the IPBES) stated in its 2019 report that the world is going through an extinction crisis, with up to a million species at threat of extinction, largely due to human activities. The picture is similarly stark at the national UK level, with the Natural History Museum stating in September 2020 that the UK has become one of the most nature depleted countries in Europe.
This collapse of biodiversity on land is ultimately the result of changes in land use, with the rapid expansion of intensive farming since WWII routinely identified as the primary cause. To restore the UK’s wildlife and natural landscapes to their former glory, large amounts of land needs to be reverted back to natural and / or rewilded areas from their current use in agriculture. With Who Owns England estimating that half of England is owned by just 1% of the population, England’s large landowners have a fundamental role to play if we are going to have any chance of saving Britain’s nature.
The same is true for Norfolk, and as one of the largest landowners in the county the Royal Family could play a vital and leading role in this movement. This is particularly the case given the resources at their disposal. The Sunday Times Rich List estimated in 2020 that the Queen’s net worth is £350m. This only refers to her wealth; Prince Charles receives income from the substantial property holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall. Furthermore, Prince Charles is arguably one of the world’s highest profile environmental activists (and to his credit, through this he has had a huge impact).
These factors beg the question: is the Royal Family, a family of environmental activists, doing everything in their power to maximise biodiversity recovery on their own land holdings?
Answering this sort of question without data from the Sandringham Estate is difficult. However, the map of Sandringham Estate developed by WON now allows for external stakeholders to build a better idea of what is going on within the estate’s boundaries. WON combined the estate map with the latest version of Natural England’s “Priority Habitat Inventory”. Priority habitats are described by the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee as “those that were identified as being the most threatened and requiring conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP)”. The inventory is a map of these priority habitats, available on the Natural England website. WON made small additions to this dataset to include other data indicating areas of high conservation value (e.g. Ancient Woodland and Estate parkland). Combined, these datasets indicate how much of the Sandringham Estate has been put aside for high value natural habitats. These have been summarised in this public Google Sheets and in the table below:
Our initial research has estimated that just 12% of the Sandringham Estate has been strictly put aside for these priority habitats. Whilst the Forestry Commission’s latest woodland inventory indicates 17.76% of the estate is covered by woodland, just a third of this (approximately 6% of the total estate) is identified as ancient or priority woodland habitat. This suggests most of the woodland consists of commercial conifer plantations of reduced ecological value. Much of this woodland coverage also consists of small woods and copses sandwiched between large areas of arable and pasture fields. WON included “Estate Parkland”, i.e. the gardens surrounding the estate’s two country manors: Sandringham House and Anmer House. Sandringham’s parkland in particular has a variety of nature friendly features, such as large ponds, woodland, wood pasture etc.
437 acres of Sandringham estate (2.17% of the total) are listed as Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (one of the UK’s leading ways of protecting key areas of natural value) by Natural England. The majority of SSSI land constitutes Dersingham Bog, which Sandringham has leased to Natural England on a long term lease, and is listed as in ‘unfavourable but recovering’ status.
WON’s 12% figure for the total area of Sandringham Estate put aside for targeted conservation appears low and is likely an underestimate. Whilst based on the best publicly available data, data gaps exist. For example, “arable field margins” are listed as a priority habitat, but they do not appear to have been included in Natural England’s latest Priority Habitat Inventory. Sandringham Estate’s conservation webpage indicates that over 200km of field margins have been developed since 1952. Hedgerows have also not been included. Furthermore, Sandringham’s website also highlights that a significant proportion of the estate has been converted to organic farming (but does not state how much).
However, whilst organic farming is much more beneficial for wildlife than intensive food production techniques, it is arguably not as effective in enhancing biodiversity as ecological restoration and / or rewilding. It is also important to note that our figures are in line with the figures listed on Sandringham’s website, which claims 1,400 hectares of the estate is woodland (3,459 acres vs WON’s estimation of 3,545 acres), and 360 hectares of wild bird cover / uncultivated / wild land (890 acres, vs WON’s estimation of 1,803 acres of uncultivated / wild land).
Surprisingly, if true these figures indicate that despite the considerable resources available to its owners, Sandringham Estate is potentially lagging behind in comparison with nearby estates in Norfolk when it comes to their environmental responsibilities. Our research indicates that Ken Hill Estate, which almost borders the Sandringham Estate, is rewilding 40% of its land via the Wild Ken Hill project, whilst West Acre Estate is rewilding 22% of its land. Putting aside 12% of land for conservation is not enough to reverse the current catastrophic decline in nature; The Wildlife Trusts estimate that 30% of land needs to be protected to sustain nature’s recovery.
There should be little doubt that Sandringham is well run with regards to conservation. Prince Charles is a committed conservationist, and Sandringham Estate’s conservation webpage lists a number of exciting, impactful projects. However, this webpage is also cursory and does not provide local stakeholders with much information to work with. Given the Royal Family’s enthusiasm to showcase their environmental credentials, they should arguably be turning the estate into Norfolk’s flagship conservation project. One obvious way to kick this off would be to start a Knepp or Ken Hill-style rewilding project on a significant proportion of its land.
We have contacted the Sandringham Estate for further information and will update this page as and when they respond.