National Trust takes aim at net zero target with largest tree planting project to date at Wimpole

The National Trust’s largest and most diverse tree planting project to date is underway on the 1,000 hectare (2,471 acre) Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire.

With 90,000 trees being planted across the wider estate, away from the Grade 1 registered parkland, the charity aims to plant 120 hectares (296 acres) of woodland, wood pasture and agroforestry by the middle of next month, despite the recent stormy weather.

The ambitious project has been made possible thanks to £1.3 million investment and funding from the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund and HSBC UK.  The tree planting programme will also help with the conservation charity’s ambitions to become net carbon zero by 2030.

As with other landowners across the country, one of the biggest challenges facing the estate is climate change and how to manage the land to help mitigate its effects while increasing benefits for nature, while still running a profitable and productive business.

To tackle the issue the team is now planting 32 hectares (79 acres) of new woodland, 49 hectares (121 acres) of wood pasture and 39 hectares (96 acres) of agroforestry.

Thirty-nine different native apple tree varieties will be planted including many heritage species creating a belt of agroforestry – with six types grown for harvesting and juicing to include Ashmead’s Kernel, Egremont Russet and Greensleeves.    

The team aims to generate income from growing apples, while still being able to harvest cereal crops as it has done so for the past 12 years.

David Hassall, farm manager at Wimpole says: “The 2,000 apple trees will be planted in rows to link two areas of well-established woodland, roughly 330 meters apart, to help encourage the estate’s rare Barbastelle bat population to travel between the woods, with cereal crops growing in between.  

“The apple trees will provide food for pollinators, particularly bees when blossom emerges in the spring and the wildflower rich strips the trees are planted in will support a range of wildlife.

“The wood pasture and areas of new woodland will help counter drought as once established the trees will help hold water in the landscape as well as attracting plenty of worms and fungi which will help soil health as well as storing carbon.  

“This means that we can continue to plant our arable crops and have healthy grazing pasture for our rare breed cattle and sheep.”

Due to Wimpole’s ancient landscape which has been occupied by people for at least 5,000 years, one of the first jobs undertaken was a comprehensive study of the areas of the estate being considered for tree planting, which concentrated on areas of less productive arable land and where they would give the greatest benefit to nature.  

The charity commissioned a geophysical survey of all the woodland planting areas to locate any archaeological remains. This survey made some significant discoveries which resulted in alterations to the planting plans to preserve these sites.  

The team also worked closely and took advice from many partners to include the Woodland Trust, Natural England, RSPB, Historic England and Forestry England.

Project Manager Jason Sellars says: “Ten months in the planning and with three intensive months of tree planting underway, we want to demonstrate how action to tackle climate change and to aid nature’s recovery can be undertaken in a relatively short space of time.

“This tree planting is the beginning of something exciting that will last for generations to come.  In stark contrast to our ancestors, we’re planting areas of woodland to capture carbon rather than to give us fuel, while also creating new habitats for wildlife.

“It’s been really important to us to fully understand the context of what we are doing in light of the history of the land and the nature that already lives here.

“A full analysis of the land and consulting with partners has given us the confidence that we have selected the right areas for tree planting – and are planting the right trees in the right places.  For instance, we’ve adapted our plans to avoid impacting existing habitats for Corn Buntings, a rare farmland bird species, that are already established at Wimpole.”

Jason continued: “We’ve planted 14 different species of native trees including oak, hornbeam, wild cherry, field maple and birch, plus 10 species of shrubs including hawthorn, hazel and spindle.  

“The variety of trees is really important to help build resilience into the landscape in the face of a growing number to tree diseases, and to attract different birds and animals.

“Once all the trees are planted we’ll enter a three-five year period where we’ll leave the trees to establish and grow before introducing livestock.”

Archaeologist Angus Wainwright who led the historic studies of the estate says: “Wimpole has always been a place of dynamic change. 

“Many might think that Wimpole seems a bit of timeless English countryside but really it has never stood still. 

“Through the research we’ve conducted we’ve uncovered the waxing and waning of tree planting which has been going on at Wimpole for centuries, and we are continuing that trend.

“The biggest changes made to the estate were in the 1660s, when every element of the medieval landscape were dramatically changed over the course of just 20 years.  Every road, field and settlement was altered or removed in order to improve profitability.

“After that we see the park expanding rapidly, eating up fields and hamlets with woodland spreading into the countryside for the first time in the form of belts and wooded drives.  In the 20th Century, we see a response to advances in farming technology and the drive towards intensive farming methods in the removal of hedgerows.

“It’s interesting that despite the dramatic changes to the countryside in the 17th Century, in many cases the old tracks and furlong boundaries were preserved as new field boundaries.

“Even in the park, we can see how in the 18th Century avenues were laid out along earlier medieval field boundaries, and today we’re using the same principles with the current fields dictating our new wood boundaries.”

To ensure the team have a clear picture of how the tree planting might affect biodiversity and wildlife numbers in the future a baseline ecology survey has been carried out.

Twelve volunteers have been trained over the past ten months to ensure accurate and regular on-going records can be maintained.

National Trust Ecologist Alison Collins says: “We’ve been able to reset the biodiversity baseline for Wimpole by surveying for bats, butterflies, birds and plants.  We’ve worked with volunteers to show them how to take transect records of species and we now plan to survey the same areas going forwards.

“We recorded an excellent number of species this year.  Particular highlights included bee, pyramidal and common spotted orchids in the wildflower-rich field margins where we also recorded 28 species of butterfly; marbled whites, ringlet, meadow brown and gatekeepers in particularly high numbers with good numbers of common blue and small heath.   

“These high numbers are because the farm has been farmed in a nature friendly manner for over a decade, turning organic in 2009 and introducing extra wide eight metre grassland margins around arable fields to support wildflowers such as oxeye daisy’s and common knapweed to benefit pollinators and invertebrates.

“The hedgerows have been looked after so that they are wide and good habitats for wildlife.  They are particularly good for the estate’s rare and internationally important Barbastelle bat population as it allows them to navigate easily between their woodland roosting and feeding sites. 

“As the trees start to grow and the new habitats become established, we obviously hope to see these numbers increase, but also that other wildlife moves in such as additional bat and butterfly species attracted to the new areas of woodland and other habitats.”

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