Charlie, tell us how you first developed your personal passion for wildlife and the outdoors.
I was brought up in Africa – Zimbabwe – as a young boy, and then moved at age seven with my parents to Australia. In both countries, I was living in the bush, so seeing large free-roaming animals in the landscape was second nature. But, being a child, I was also passionate about the tiniest creatures. My earliest memory was of the tub of water my mum used to put under a light outside on the veranda in Africa to catch insects so they didn’t fly into the house. I was so fascinated by all the bugs, I used to climb into the water-tub to be with them!
How was the estate managed when you took over in the late 1980s? What were the main priorities back then?
Until the mid-90s, we ran a mixed farming enterprise that included 660 dairy cows, a beef production unit, a maize-silage operation and a sheep unit. I was very conscious that we had to diversify if we were to gain a commercial edge. Though our dairy herds were right up there with the best of them – at its peak we were producing 3.2 million litres of cows’ milk a year – our arable yields could never compete with farms elsewhere. So we built up an ice cream and yoghurt business. We also milked our sheep! We were focussed on survival.
But still, we were constrained by the heavy Weald clay. Basically the land is a no-go area from the moment it rains in the autumn until late spring. You just can’t get machinery onto it. We have tiny fields, too, surrounded by hedges, so the kind of industrial scale farming you see in East Anglia was completely beyond us. The worst thing about managing an estate when you’re in survival mode is that you don’t notice the decline of wildlife around you…(read the full interview here)