Holkham reserve set for new era

Spanning 9,500 acres of some of Britain's most wild and precious landscapes, the Holkham National Nature Reserve (NNR) is undeniably a jewel in north Norfolk's coastal crown.

Its sweeping scenery, rare habitats and world-famous beach lure about 800,000 visitors every year – not to mention the diverse wealth of protected wildlife which lives there.

But after decades under the stewardship of Natural England (NE), the responsibility for much of this nationally-important site has been handed back to the landowners whose forebears helped to shape it.

The Holkham Estate took over the management of a 'substantial part' of the reserve last week, making it one of only a handful of the country's 224 NNR's to be managed by an independent private landowner.

The move was initiated by the estate's board members after their agreement with NE expired. Their motivation was to integrate the reserve within a wider ethos of environmental stewardship in the estate's considerable agriculture and tourism operations.

But it is also seen as an opportunity to prove that farming is compatible with high standards of nature conservation, and that the two can thrive together.

Estates director David Horton-Fawkes said: 'The main reason we took this decision was that as Norfolk has changed in so many ways we realised the nature reserve has become the place by which people define Holkham.

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'It is our shop window, so it is something we need to take an active part in managing. That is not to criticise the work that NE has done, but it is about joining up what happens in our core visitor destination with what happens on the rest of the estate.

'The key word is integration. Conservation is not something that just goes on in part of the estate, it runs throughout everything we do.

'Historically there has always been a perception that there is a conflict between conservation and farming, but we as a leading rural estate should be able to demonstrate that we can make them work together.'

The Holkham Farming Company will now use its resources to maintain the estate's part of the reserve, while NE will continue to monitor the work to ensure it complies with the statutory designations which govern the site.

Mr Horton-Fawkes estimated the change could save as much as �100,000 per year from the public purse – but said visitors to the reserve would not face additional expense to subsidise the extra workload.

'If you are asking whether car parking charges are going to go up, then the answer is no, they won't,' he said. 'We will be deploying people and machinery that we already have. We have got that extra capacity, it is just a case of using it over a wider area.

'Because we are not a public sector body we can be more flexible and faster to respond, And, it is going to be more cost-effective for the public sector, because we already have all the kit.

'But it is not a commercial move. One of our main challenges is to protect the wilderness of the place. We have got to be careful not to commercialise it because the reason people are coming here is because of the way it is.'

The mixture of windswept dunes, pine woods and marshes stretching from Burnham Norton to Blakeney attracts hordes of wildfowl, birds of prey, waders, butterflies, lizards, toads, and marine life, and has been an NNR since 1967.

As one of the prime wildlife sites in the country, it will retain its NNR status and its host of national and international designations including site of special scientific interest (SSSI), special protection area (SPA) and special area of conservation (SAC). To manage this extraordinary biodiversity, a new conservation manager has been appointed.

Sarah Henderson, whose previous role involved working across 34 different nature sites for Waverley Borough Council in Surrey, will lead a three-person team to handle the 'privilege' of looking after one of the UK's most heavily-visited NNRs.

'I was elated to be offered the post at such a hugely important site,' she said. 'It is a stunning area with incredibly rich wildlife and I can't wait to get started.

'We have got natterjack toads in the sand dunes and the salt marshes are phenomenal for bird life.

'The first day I was here I saw a marsh harrier, and there were so many avocets, lapwings and curlews. It is not the sort of thing you see in Surrey.

'One of the most important things will be to get the water levels right on the grazing marshes, so we can continue to attract the diverse range of breeding birds that we have here. The whole site is very wet and there are a lot of ditches where we can manipulate the levels through the sluices.

'Getting that balance right is the key to the whole site. If it is too wet or too dry, the breeding birds will not like it.'

Although the handover marks a significant change in the responsibility for the reserve, it will not immediately alter the practical policies which guide its management. The estate will continue to implement the 2010-2015 management plan developed by NE.

'The main thing I will be picking up is the visitor management side of things,' said Miss Henderson. 'It is about finding that fine line between visitors coming to the site to enjoy it, but preventing any accidental detrimental damage.

'Where the wildlife is very rare and vulnerable, there will be site information and if people follow that advice they will enhance their enjoyment of the place and protect the reasons they came here in the first place.

'So if we need to ask people to keep their dogs on a lead, they will realise why we are doing it once they understand what is there.'

Miss Henderson will also work with tenant farmers on the estate to help with environmental stewardship schemes and ensure the conservation ethos radiates throughout Holkham's commercial operations, and not just its reserve.

Although Natural England will continue to directly manage the foreshore and mud flats, Holkham has become one of 39 NNRs which are managed, to varying degrees, in partnership with private or other landowners.

Liz Newton, NE's director responsible for the national nature reserves, said: 'This is a relatively unique situation and reflects the estate's expertise and resource to work at this scale, and their long-standing interest in looking after the reserve and its wildlife.

'We look forward to continuing our long and successful partnership with the estate in managing this national treasure so that locals and visitors, flora and fauna alike can benefit from it for generations to come.

'Holkham NNR is one of England's finest wildlife sites – it's good to know it will be in the safe hands of the Holkham Estate.'

Despite its wild appearance, the landscape of the NNR has been heavily influenced by the Coke family of Holkham Hall.

Saltmarsh reclamation began on this coast at Burnham Overy in 1639 and by the time the Wells embankment was completed in 1859 by the 2nd Earl of Leicester and local farmers, about 800 hectares of saltmarsh had been converted to agricultural use.

In the late 19th century the 3rd Earl of Leicester planted pine trees on the dunes, creating the shelter-belt which still protects the reclaimed farmland from wind-blown sands.

Following the management transfer, the current Viscount Coke said: 'I am confident we will be able not only to maintain but to improve standards of habitat management and to enhance the interpretation of this precious landscape a for visitors.

'I am particularly concerned to find the right balance between access and conservation and I am acutely aware that it is essential to preserve the wild and remote essence of the place.'