Bringing back nature in North Yorkshire

The CLA finds out how conservation and biodiversity work at Summerstone Estate is helping to restore nature and achieve carbon neutrality
Summerstone Estate landscape
The estate covers 1,500 acres in the Nidderdale National Landscape, North Yorkshire

Within the Nidderdale National Landscape in North Yorkshire, a major transition is underway at the 1,500-acre Summerstone Estate, with a substantial work programme to restore nature. The aim is to bring back wildlife, replenish woodlands, regenerate the soil, improve natural water management and ultimately achieve carbon neutrality alongside the estate’s sustainable beef and sheep farm and sporting activities.

Steve and Karen Halsall purchased Summerstone in 2015. The farm had been intensively grazed, and the woodlands were largely unmanaged. They planned their future-facing approach alongside Roy Burrows, who joined Summerstone as estate manager later in 2015. Today, the estate comprises around 227 acres of woodland and 555 acres of hill land, including 350 acres of heather as well as 699 acres of farmland.

Transforming farming

Farming practices have changed significantly, a transition that began in 2015 and has been taken forward since September 2021 by Farm Manager Graham Tibbot. As well as revising the overall farm layout, intensive grazing has been replaced with rotational grazing with native livestock breeds such as Belted Galloway cattle and Scottish Blackface sheep. Roy explains: “This conservation grazing approach with native breeds is not only encouraging wildflowers to return but also benefiting the soil structure and encouraging more carbon sequestration in the soil.”

Woodland planting

Summerstone’s tree planting programme has also been substantial, with 128 acres of new native woodland carefully planned, planted and managed. The new woodland includes upland species such as oak, birch, rowan and hazel for ground cover, with conifer and holly for year-round bird habitat. The planting plan brings together the estate’s sporting activities, in-hand farming operations, biodiversity and wildlife aims, water management, carbon sequestration and aesthetics.

Summerstone Estate landscape
Hedge planting efforts on the estate are helping to restore wildlife habitats

Moorland management

Management of the estate’s grouse moor has also been transformed. A considered programme of cutting and heather burning alongside revising old drainage systems is increasing peat levels. This means the moor’s capacity to store carbon and prevent flooding is also improving. Fringe ground between the moor and better grassland is being turned into wildlife meadows. Roy says: “This is a long process because of the impacts of historic farming practices, but we are starting to see good results.”

Bird and insects

The changes to farming practices, woodland planting and moorland management have played a major role in bringing birds and insects back to the estate. This has been supported by breeding programmes for species such as curlew, lapwing, red shank and golden plover, the installation of more than 50 bird and bat boxes, hedge planting and the restoration of 1,200m of stonewall.

“When I joined, I never saw a barn owl,” says Roy. “Now, with more food sources thanks to longer grass and returning wildlife like voles, we have barn owls and new chicks in the barn owl boxes that we put into several of the barns.”

Even though the land is steep, there are now an estimated 10 pairs of curlews on the estate, as well as a marked increase in lapwings and the wader population overall. The gradient of the land and the high volume of rain bring other challenges. “We’re improving flood management naturally with the structure of woodlands and the management of grazing fields,” Roy explains. “The deeper root system can soak more water away.”

Managing challenges

The estate’s pioneering approach has brought challenges. Working with bodies such as Nidderdale National Landscape, the Nidderdale Moorland Group and various grassland groups, the Summerstone team regularly explores new approaches, identifying ones that can be applied to the estate. Roy says: “Being among the first means trying things out and learning when things don’t go to plan. What you picture and what you get can be two different things, and we take that experience into our next project.”

For example, while pollinator mixes have not worked well at Summerstone, wildflowers such as red clover are coming through more successfully as a result of the conservation grazing approach.

Carbon neutral

Summerstone is also working towards becoming carbon-neutral. Supplemental feeding for the stock is minimised through analysing food quality. The farm and land management approaches are regenerative and holistic, focusing on a bespoke plan to deliver the greatest long-term benefit for the estate, those connected with it and the natural environment.

There is an ongoing project to identify how to measure progress toward carbon neutrality, and while carbon markets could support the estate’s conservation programmes, there remains uncertainty around the best models. Roy says the estate will seek advice from CLA experts.

The estate has also supported progress towards carbon neutrality beyond its boundaries by hosting soil carbon workshops, where Farm Carbon Toolkit experts demonstrated how farmers can measure soil health and carbon without laboratory testing.

Commitment to the future

Roy is proud of what the Summerstone team is achieving.

It’s all made possible because of Steve and Karen’s passion for conservation and commitment to investing in the future

Roy Burrows

Plans include planting another 350m of new hedgerow, restoring another 400m of stonewall, continuing the heather-land reseeding programme, and tackling bracken.

Several conservation projects were facilitated in part by grants and funding schemes, and Roy highlights challenges to hill farming, such as the Basic Payment Scheme phase-out and uncertainty around the transition to Environmental Land Management schemes.

Despite these uncertainties, the Halsall’s vision is a strong and effective driving force for change at Summerstone. “A lot of the conservation work is happening because Steve and Karen felt it was the right thing to do.”

In less than a decade, Summerstone has transformed its relationship with nature and is showcasing how farming, sporting activities and conservation can work together for the long term.

Summerstone Estate landscape
1,200m of stonewall has been restored as part of Summerstone’s conservation programme