Hugh van Cutsem: Conservationist and sportsman built up award-winning Norfolk estate

Obit Hugh van Cutsem

Obit Hugh van Cutsem - Credit: Archant

Conservationist and sportsman, Hugh van Cutsem, who built up an award-winning Norfolk estate, has died aged 72 after a long illness.

A winner of the Laurent Perrier Wild Game Award in 1997, his Hilborough estate, near Swaffham, was home to the country's highest density of breeding stone curlews.

He demonstrated that good farming and conservation could thrive on the 4,500-acre estate, which was also designated as a site of special scientific interest and part of the Brecks special protection area.

When he bought 3,000 acres of the former Hilborough estate in 1986, he began a 25-year programme to create the best conditions for game and wildlife. Overgrown hedges were cut back and replanting encouraged to produce good driven partridge shooting.

Recognising that good keepers were part of the strategy, from 1994 he employed a third to implement the estate's integrated game management strategy. It paid off as numbers of grey partridge increased at a rapid rate – as did the other farmland birds including skylarks, tree sparrows and linnets.

Even the RSPB's then chief executive, Barbara, Lady Young, praised his efforts in 1997 when he won the Laurent Perrier. Typically, he spent the £2,500 prize on replanting more hedges.

Elected chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association in 2003, he said: 'We have put in an enormous amount of work to enhance habitats since we came here 17 years ago. I make no apology that this has been done to improve the shooting – the two complement one another.'

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A great supporter and a vice-president of the Game Conservancy Trust, he led the Norfolk committee's efforts to raise £130,000 to fund a five-year project to boost the grey partridge in 2004. He once donated 20 tonnes of flint to provide nest sites for stone curlews, which created 15 plots on the nearby Stanford training area.

At the 2011 Royal Norfolk Show, his estate won the Mills & Reeve Grey Partridge Award, which many thought long-overdue. Sadly, he was unable to attend. But his head keeper, Gerald Gray, who had been at Hilborough for 23 years, said: 'It had taken a lot of time and a lot of passion from Hugh van Cutsem. His passion has really encouraged us to share that passion.'

Hilborough then had a population of 230 pairs of grey partridge and 45 pairs of stone curlew, an increase of two on the previous year.

He had been a member of the National Trust's executive and served as a member of Breckland Council until 2003 when his other responsibilities forced him to stand down. He was also on the council of English Nature, now Natural England, and also president of the South-West Norfolk Conservative Association since 2004.

A companion of the Prince of Wales, Mr van Cutsem had lived at Anmer Hall on the Sandringham estate – soon to be the home of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – before building a new country house on his recently acquired estate at Hilborough.

When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, the van Cutsems' eight-year-old son Edward, the Prince's godson, was one of their two pageboys. Later their sons, William, Edward, Hugh and Nicholas, became close friends of the princes William and Harry.

Hugh Bernard Edward van Cutsem was born on July 21, 1941. His father, Bernard, of Northmore Farm, Exning, Newmarket, was a racehorse trainer and breeder.

After leaving Ampleforth, he served as an officer in the Life Guards and was later an investment manager at Hambro's. On his father's death in 1976, he took on the family's stud at Newmarket until it was sold in the 1990s.

In 1994 he won a Country Landowners' Association award for the restoration of a dilapidated brick and flint barn for five brood mares at Hilborough whose architectural style became the 'signature' of his stud. It was presented by the Prince of Wales.

He was appointed a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in 1993.

He married, in 1971, Emilie van Ufford, who survives him with their four sons.

Michael Pollitt