Rupert Hardy, Chairman of North Dorset CPRE, takes a look at Mapperton, the Dorset country estate creating its own version of Knepp’s rewilding in Surrey
Luke and Julie Montagu took on the challenge of running the family estate at Mapperton, near Beaminster, in 2016 from Luke’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Sandwich. They quickly began introducing many positive changes, but the biggest has been the decision to rewild part of the 1,900 acres they own.
Inspired by the success of the Knepp Estate in Sussex, the Montagus are now using rewilding, traditional conservation and also regenerative farming to deliver major ecological benefits – as well as offsetting the huge expenses of maintaining the historic house, the Italianate gardens and their four farms.
Rewilding began in 2021, using the 200 acre farm at Coltleigh; another 257 acres will be added this year and further 500 or so later. The aim is to restore the degraded landscape which features beautiful but marginal agricultural land. For the rewilding sceptics, this really is not good agricultural land. Extensive ecological surveys were conducted to help identify key habitats and the benefits of rewilding. The estate is introducing large grazing herbivores which will replicate the low-intensity grazing comparable to the Mesolithic Period.
White Park horned cattle, Exmoor ponies and beavers have all been brought in, and the cattle will be managed using virtual fence technology and electronic collars in order for internal fencing and gates to be removed in the rewilded area. It is hoped that after ten years or so, virtual fencing can be dispensed with too. These herbivores help create habitats by dispersing seeds and nutrients through grazing, browsing, trampling and rootling. Broadleaf tree species are being planted and new ponds created to support a wetland ecology.
Beavers should be able to help with flood alleviation as they are master ‘ecosystem engineers’. Hunted to extinction in the UK in the 1600s due to the value of their pelts, they are being reintroduced selectively.
New to Mapperton this year will be the introduction of Iron Age pigs, which look like wild boar. Pine martens are also being considered. Driven game shooting is now stopping but the estate will still have a sustainable rough shoot. There are wild deer on the estate and these still need to be culled to manage the health of the herds.
Luke wants to carry out research into the rewilding process, and plans to work with both Reading and Bournemouth Universities on various projects.
Mapperton vs. Knepp
Comparing Mapperton with Knepp, there are some clear differences in approach. All of Knepp has been rewilded, while half of Mapperton – where there is better land – will still be farmed, with a focus on regenerative agriculture, placing soil health at the core of the farming practice. Crops are sown using direct drilling with no ploughing and minimal use of fertilisers and pesticides. All these will improve biodiversity and lead to better recycling of farm waste, carbon sequestration and more nutritious food.
Luke is well aware that Mapperton is more remote than Knepp, so the estate is relying far more on virtual visitors. He and Julie have previous career experience in film and reality TV, which has helped in developing a strong social media presence for Mapperton abroad, especially in the USA. They already have 130,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel. They also have a Patreon community, who pay extra to get exclusive video of what is happening at Mapperton. Potentially these virtual visitors can become real visitors this year, as the couple will be organising Grand Historic Tours in Dorset, commercially aimed at wealthy Americans.
If you look at the physical visitor stats, half come from Dorset. However, only 0.5 per cent of Dorset residents have ever visited Mapperton. There is clear potential here for the estate, especially with the plans to make the estate a more family-friendly attraction, with play areas being built in the gardens.
Clearly more holiday accommodation will be needed and old farmsteads are being converted. Glamping started last year and Luke hopes that it will be possible to offer real camping soon. They also intend holding more events and talks in the expanded visitor centre. The Dorset economy can only benefit from more attractions like Mapperton, inland from the crowded coast.
Benefits of social prescribing
One new interesting approach is social prescribing. Local healthcare professionals will be able to refer patients to nature-based programmes at the estate, which would include outdoor activities, such as coppicing and foraging, to support their health and well-being. One of Luke’s admirable visions is that of connecting people with nature, the landscape and the heritage of the area.
To complement the activities at Mapperton, West Dorset Wilding has been set up with two other estates to raise understanding of rewilding and regenerative agriculture and to establish wildlife corridors, as well as targeting certain species such as beavers, focusing on the River Brit catchment. Close by are a number of gardens open to the public which have introduced rewilding, such as Hooke Farm, which has glorious wild flower meadows in the spring.
Do go and visit Mapperton this year (www.mapperton.com). You will find more than delicious sandwiches in their smart café!