On Spains Hall Estate near Finchingfield, Archie Ruggles-Brise is committed to creating a more sustainable countryside – one that includes a thriving population of beavers

I’m meeting a pioneering land manager with a beautiful and altruistic vision of our countryside. Picture Essex as it is today, a patchwork of fields scattered with pretty villages but instead of the crops we know; beet, maize and wheat, the fields are filled with a huge variety of plants picked for their ability to produce food for us, and to encourage wildlife and greater biodiversity. There are more woodlands and wetland areas which draw in birdlife, insects and mammals, many that you thought had dwindled. This is the vision in action of Archie Ruggles-Brise, and visiting the Spains Hall Estate is a glimpse into a wild and thoughtful future countryside.

Great British Life: Archie Ruggles-BriseArchie Ruggles-Brise

Spains Hall Estate is astonishingly miles from anywhere and I’m enchanted at how a farm in Essex and so close to the airport can seem this remote. Archie, an 11th generation custodian of this beautiful corner of Essex is keen to look after his family’s estate but is also committed to using it to benefit society and create a more sustainable countryside. Archie’s plan, drawn from ideas gleaned from around the world, is much more holistic than traditional farming – ‘it is much more than food production – it’s about creating greater diversity across all systems’. This can be seen in action at Spains Hall which was traditionally a rural arable estate – fields of crops are now being replaced with an innovative way of planting. He takes me to see one of these new systems and, instead of the fields being filled with wheat or thick with maize, there are narrow rows of walnut and hazelnut trees planted with large gaps in between. These gaps are filled with ‘biodiverse crops’ – the sort of plants that will provide birds with ground cover and encourage a greater range of visiting insects and bird life to the farm. This, in turn, will provide the trees with a host of inhabitants, including natural insect predators to keep pests under control.

To me this feels like a huge leap from the wedding business Archie and his wife ran for some years but, in fact, he has been working towards doing this for a long time. With a background in problem solving, water management and then onto a more strategic role setting up river trusts, he has been getting ready for this ‘big plan’.

‘This was in the early 2000s when ideas around nature-based approaches for dealing with things like pollution and habitat creation were really starting to take off.’

Great British Life: Some of the land at Spains Hall EstateSome of the land at Spains Hall Estate

Archie’s an expert at strategic partnerships so it’s no surprise to hear that some of the estate’s current projects are in collaboration with organisations such as the Environment Agency and Essex and Suffolk Water as he takes the estate ‘towards my environmental background.’ Think of all those wonky bits of land on a farm, the corners that are too steep for crops to be planted and harvested - these are now being used for businesses to ‘offset biodiversity’. This enables Archie to run other rewilding projects that don’t yet bring in any substantial income, for instance they have created a wet woodland using beavers. This rewilding is carefully managed and planned, the value it brings enables Archie to secure an income from grants and businesses now, in order for the estate to continue running but also for the future. Residents of Essex will have wilder areas, increased biodiversity and wildlife… which brings us onto beavers.

I am so excited to hear about the beavers and it seems astonishing to learn that there are 15 of them thriving here in Essex. Archie introduced a pair of beavers to the estate in March 2018 and they were happily established in a 10-acre enclosure.

‘We had been told that it wouldn’t work in a lowland area, all the other projects in the UK had beavers in fenced enclosures on upland and moorland settings,’ Archie tells me smiling.

Great British Life: Beaver lodge at Spains Hall Estate Credit Simon Hurwitz Beaver lodge at Spains Hall Estate Credit Simon Hurwitz

Now, in 2023, they have extended this area to house the flourishing population. What beavers bring to the estate with their habitat is transformational, their dams don’t solve the problems of flooding for people but the slow flow of water through them reduces the depth of floodwater when it does occur. Their habitat creates a water resource; beautiful pools in wooded areas which attract a host of different wildlife that appreciates a wetland area. Archie takes me to visit the enclosure (although alas no beavers about as it’s during the day) and it really is an oasis. Before the beavers were introduced there was a shallow ditch in this wooded space, now big ponds fill it and I can see the beavers’ lodge in the centre and fresh areas of gnawing on some trees. It is very beautiful and so tranquil. The beaver pools mean that the estate, which was always very dry, now has an area of refuge for wildlife in the summer, there is always water stored here. They trap pollutants and sediments flowing off fields when it rains and the water that comes out is cleaner. It is a part of the long-term commitment Archie takes on managing wildlife and its contribution to society.

Archie really is inspirational, he tells me, ‘I have a list of ideas and some won’t work,’ but he’s not afraid to try them out and see where it takes him. This ecological masterplan sees the farm replacing big open fields, creating a bigger and more complicated business but one that employs many more people and gives to future generations. It is a pleasure to hear someone think beyond themselves and their immediate needs and that really is pioneering. As for the beavers, the estate runs tours and opportunities to view them from established hides so we can see these gorgeous animals beavering away. Book me on!

Great British Life: Spains Hall Estate agroforestry with wildlife stripSpains Hall Estate agroforestry with wildlife strip Great British Life: Beaver dam at Spains Hall Estate Beaver dam at Spains Hall Estate