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  • Writer's pictureWho Owns Norfolk?

Is it time to rewild Castle Acre?

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

One of the catalysts for the creation of Who Owns Norfolk was the "Holkham Estate" sign post that used to greet visitors as they entered the spectacular Castle Acre Common SSSI, on the Nar Valley Way public footpath. Holkham is a good 40 minute drive from Castle Acre - how is it that Lord Leicester owns Castle Acre Common as well?

When we put together the Who Owns Norfolk map, we realised that Holkham doesn't just own the common. Lord Leicester owns a sizeable 1,940 acre estate surrounding Castle Acre, including a long stretch of the River Nar, the village's old manor house, marshes, woodland, alongside arable and pasture fields. Indeed, you cannot enter or leave the village without crossing land owned by the Coke Family. This land includes the village's castle and priory - two wonderful parts of Norfolk's cultural heritage. The history of this land holding is unclear, but historic maps from the 18th Century show that Holkham Estate used to be 43,000 acres in size, with swathes of land held across Norfolk.

Holkham Estate is generally well regarded for its nature conservation, owning the Holkham National Nature Reserve and through this a large section of the North Norfolk Coast SSSI. However, with most people not knowing they own so much land at Castle Acre, it is much less clear clear whether they are being good stewards for this smaller part of their property portfolio.

To help find out, we combined the Estate Map of Holkham created by Who Owns Norfolk with satellite imagery via Google Earth, with habitat maps from DEFRA's Magic Map, to try and figure out just how much land Holkham has put aside for nature at its 1,940 acre land holding in Castle Acre. This map can be viewed by following this link, or below:

The initial results are promising. The 43-acre Castle Acre Common SSSI, described as an "unimproved grazing marsh", is listed as in unfavourable but recovering condition. The estate recently introduced a more natural grazing regime by bringing a herd of Konik ponies onto the common, which will hopefully improve the ecological condition further. Holkham also owns a significant portion of the River Nar SSSI, including the idyllic grazing marshes just to to the south of the village. Holkham's portion of this SSSI is listed as in favourable condition (indicating effective management), and stretches all the way from Castle Acre Common almost to West Lexham in the East. Holkham's Castle Acre holdings also feature an amazing network of significant field margins - clearly the work of an estate which values nature over maximising profits. We have summarised the size of the estate's different habitat types below:

Riparian Habitats (mainly grazing marshes, including the Common and River Nar SSSIs) - 161 acres, or 8.29% of the land holding total)

Woodland - 118 acres, or 6.07% of the total

Field Margins / Scrubland - 132 acres, or 6.78% of the total

Non-Riparian Grassland (including the grassland on and around Castle Acre Castle, which is rare calcareous grassland) - 38 acres, or 1.97% of the total.

Total Natural or Semi-Natural Habitat: 449 acres, or 23.14% of the total

Important note: these results are based on an analysis of DEFRA's Magic Map, alongside satellite imagery. Some of this data may therefore be out of date. Some key natural habitat may be missed when analysing satellite imagery.

Our research indicates 23.14% of the Castle Acre Estate has been put aside for natural / semi-natural habitat, which is an impressive figure. However, it is still short of the Wildlife Trust's objective for 30% of land to be protected for nature, which is the amount it deems necessary to reverse the catastrophic declines in Britain's nature. Holkham would need to put another ~130 acres aside for nature to get to this figure.

One obvious avenue for improving nature recovery at Holkham's Castle acre holdings would be to plant a new woodland. The Castle Acre estate's woodland cover is just 6.07%, less than half the figure for the whole of the UK (recently estimated by the Woodland Trust at 13%).

But perhaps there would be an even more effective tool for achieving landscape scale recovery around Castle Acre? The neighbouring 8,800 acre West Acre Estate recently announced a 1,990 acre rewilding project - Wild West Acre. This extends right up to Castle Acre Common, where Holkham is already practising landscape restoration through the River Nar Restoration programme (led by Norfolk Rivers Trust in collaboration with West Acre Estate) and the implementation of a more natural grazing regime through the use of Konik ponies. The map below indicates where the rewilding project ends, and Holkham's Castle Acre lands begin (the dark green area is Wild West Acre, whilst the red bordered areas to the East are owned by Holkham):

Just by rewilding a few fields to the north of Castle Acre Common, Holkham Estate could expand Wild West Acre by a significant margin, and achieve the 30% nature recovery figure recommended by the Wildlife Trusts. Furthermore, this would expand the River Nar nature network, which is arguably one of the greatest jewel's in Norfolk's ecological crown. In the process, it could prove that Norfolk's largest landowners are willing to work together to restore nature, and prove Holkham's own commitment to landscape scale ecological recovery. Arguably, the time has come to rewild Castle Acre.

We have reached out to Holkham Estate and will update this blog if they can provide us with more accurate data.

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