A walk on the wild side at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston with wildlife photographer Paul Hobson
Situated in the south of the county and four miles north-west of Derby, Kedleston Hall is the ancestral seat of the Curzon family. Built in 1759 and designed by Robert Adam, the front of the hall gazes north across a classic English parkland of lakes, grasslands and small woods. The rear of the house has a superb ha-ha which accentuates the view of grassland studded by ancient oaks.
The parkland is now managed by the National Trust. Head warden Simon Hiley oversees the vital work that makes this not only a vibrant yet peaceful estate to spend a day’s walking but also keeps it an exciting wildlife hotspot.
Speaking with Simon I discussed the complex management of the estate and some of the many recent changes that are occurring within the wildlife populations living here.
One of the key areas Simon’s team has to manage is the large number of veteran trees – 270 at the last count. Some of the oaks are over 900 years old and, although at only 150 years of age the silver birches may seem comparative youngsters, even this is a ripe old age for a short-lived species. The management of trees may seem simple initially but with the passing years they go through several growth phases. Youngsters shoot straight and tall, eager to outreach any competitors on their way to grab as much available sun as possible. As the tree ages, its girth swells and its weight substantially increases, rather like a middle age spread! At some time it may become top heavy and in later life the top may break off in a gale and the tree enters its twilight years, growing much shorter and wider. It has the look of a veteran and is often hollow, providing a home for numerous types of wildlife. Even in old age an oak can produce a considerable number of acorns, which, oddly enough, can create a serious management problem. Originally when dotted around a medieval arable landscape that later turned to permanent grazing, the acorns that fell never grew into small oaks to rival their parents. This changed from about 1947 when grazing pressure was reduced by fencing a large area of the parkland. From a small acorn a mighty oak can grow, and when large numbers all do this the grand old oak becomes swamped. The obvious solution is simply to remove the younger oaks from around the ancient parent, but this has to be done sensitively. Too much pruning allows too much sun to hit the old tree – it literally gets sunburnt. The solution is a practice called haloing, which is slowly removing the young oaks in a circle around the parent over a number of years. Some oaks are cleverly fenced to allow lambs to enter and graze lightly but prevent older, harder grazing sheep from getting near.
The wildlife that lives in and on an oak tree is varied. Oak polypore, which is on the list of threatened British fungi (ie a red data fungus), is found in the park but unfortunately as it only fruits every ten years or so it is rarely seen by many enthusiasts. The dead wood from the trees is left in situ and makes Kedleston a top international site for dead wood beetles. As I walked around the estate the day I spoke to Simon I flushed a little owl from the hollow of one tree as I photographed it. Owls are well represented on the estate as a whole, with tawnies being common. The resident three pairs of barn owls can often be seen quartering the grasslands during the long summer evenings when they have hungry youngsters to feed.
As regards other bird life, four pairs of buzzards are ever present and a pair of ravens nests every year close to the hall. Red kites are seen regularly and, with luck, will stay and breed at some time in the next decade. Woodcock breed in the quieter parts of the woodlands – Simon recalls once watching a female woodcock carrying off her youngsters between her legs.
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Probably the best known animals at Kedleston are the stoats that featured in a BBC wildlife film – Stately Stoats. They are still in residence and it’s possible to come across a stoat hunting a rabbit or, if you are very lucky, to be able to watch the wild mad antics of a family of youngsters playing tag with each other.
Change is one of the factors that makes wildlife watching so exciting. It can also provide headaches for those who manage an estate. The badger population at Kedleston has exploded over the last five years and they are now actually causing habitat change by damaging areas of permanent grassland with their continual snuffling and digging for worms. Older setts are still in use and as these become overpopulated new smaller setts are springing up all over the park. On the face of it this is excellent news, but if the badger population keeps increasing the grasslands which are vital for other species will become degraded. There is no obvious solution and it may be that we have to live with the damage that a large population of badgers causes.
Management has to balance the needs of wildlife with the aesthetics of the estate. Visitors expect a certain type of park visually and there is an obligation to preserve the living and the non-living past. In order to find an effective balance Simon’s team operates a three zone system. The zone nearest the hall has the aesthetics uppermost, so fallen dead wood is collected and moved to a less sensitive area. Zones two and three increase in ‘naturalness’ and the balance subtly moves towards wildlife. Kedleston is rightly famous for its hall and landscape but its wildlife is less well known – apart from the stately stoats. The veteran trees are architecturally amazing and well managed. During the coming year an ‘ancient and notable tree survey’ is being conducted nationwide and Kedleston needs all its trees to become part of this. Volunteers are needed, so if you would like to help with this, contact Simon.
Any day at any time of the year spent wandering the 820 acres of Kedleston’s estate will reward the wildlife watcher. Buzzards will be soaring across the sky, ducks and geese are on the five lakes and barn and little owls hunt the open grassland. If you wait till dusk the chances of seeing one of the many badgers snuffling for worms is very high and bats will delight you when they come out to hunt.