Who owns the South Downs?

Image: By Allen Watkin, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons. This post is by Guy Shrubsole.

A quarter of the South Downs National Park – over 100,000 acres – is owned by just a dozen landowners, Who Owns England can reveal. The landowners include two Dukes, three Viscounts, one Baron, and two Baronets.

It’s a common misconception that National Parks in the UK are owned by the state. That’s the case in the US, where the Federal Government owns vast swathes of national parkland, like Yosemite and Yellowstone. But in the UK, public sector National Park Authorities (NPAs) own only a tiny fraction of the land within their jurisdiction; the vast majority of each National Park remains in private hands.

The South Downs National Park is 1,627km2, or 402,040 acres. Investigations by Who Owns England can reveal for the first time that a quarter of the National Park is owned by 12 huge landowners. What’s more, many of these landowning families have owned the same land for centuries. Levels of land ownership concentration in parts of the South Downs are almost certainly the same as they were in Victorian and Edwardian times. A fascinating academic study of historic land ownership over 100 square miles of the South Downs shows that just 3 large landowners owned 40-50% of the area under study in 1840, 1910 and 1940. Not much has changed since.

Mapping who owns the South Downs

To kick off the investigation, I first contacted the South Down National Park Authority, to ask if they had any maps of landowners within the NPA boundaries. It turns out they do: this map of landowners that the NPA has been working with to draw up ‘Estate Plans’, to help manage the park in environmentally beneficial ways.

South Downs NPA landowner map screenshot

It was a good start, but clearly showed only a fraction of the overall land ownership, and I felt sure there were plenty of large estates missing from it. So I dug further, looking at farm subsidy maps, Highways Act landowner deposits, and maps of English woodland grant schemes (a Forestry Commission subsidy that operated between 2005-2015). Piecing it all together, here’s the map I’ve made showing some of the largest landowners of this beautiful chalk downland:

Who are the biggest landowners?

At the heart of the South Downs is a cluster of very large aristocratic estates – the territories of ancient families dating back to the Norman conquest living next door to 20th century additions to the Peerage.

1) Viscount Cowdray – Cowdray Estate: 16,500 acres

Cowdray Park wikimedia

Image: Cowdray Park; Wikimedia Commons.

The sprawling Cowdray Estate, the biggest single landholding in the South Downs National Park, belongs to the Pearson family, whose estimated wealth of £240m comes from publishing. The first Viscount Cowdray was given his peerage in 1917 by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George (whose son had been employed by the businessman). Lloyd George’s hatred of the old landed aristocracy and penchant for handing out peerages to newly-rich Edwardian industrialists ultimately led to the cash-for-peerages scandal.

New money, however, aped old money, and the Cowdrays soon acquired a huge landed estate of their own. The estate’s cottages remain to this day painted in a vibrant chrome yellow, a colour “chosen due to the 1st Viscount Cowdray’s connections to the Liberal party”. But the current 4th Viscount Cowdray is of a rather different political persuasion: he has donated £65,000 over the past decade to UKIP, the Conservatives and Vote Leave. At the same time, he also opposes fracking on his estate and in the wider South Downs.

Much of the Cowdray Estate appears to be registered in the name of the Rathbone Trust Company Ltd, a wealth management firm, according to the Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial dataset. Why this is the case is unclear, but potentially for reasons of tax efficiency.

2) Duke of Norfolk – Arundel & Angmering Estates: 16,000 acres


Image: Arundel Castle, Wikimedia Commons.

“Since William rose and Harold fell, / There have been Earls at Arundel.” So reads a plaque in the shadow of the magnificent Arundel Castle, stronghold of the Earls of Arundel, whose proximity to power down the centuries eventually also earned them the Dukedom of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is Earl Marshal of England, too, an ancient hereditary royal office that oversees coronations, state funerals and the College of Heralds, which grants coats of arms. The Duke’s own coat of arms is shown below.


With such grand titles comes a grand estate – several, in fact. A display in Arundel Museum states: “When the 15th Duke stood on the battlements of his newly repaired keep in 1910, he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that almost everything he could see in all directions belonged to him.” Although the Ducal estate is thought to have diminished in size since then, it is still said to span an impressive 16,000 acres. Part of this is the the Angmering Estate, next door to Arundel, “which extends to some 6,750 acres [and] forms the eastern half of the original Norfolk Estate… The Estate’s origins go back to the Norman Conquest.” 


Image: Author’s photo. An Englishman’s home is his… castle.

3) National Trust properties across the South Downs: 15,151 acres

A range of National Trust properties and parklands are scattered across the Downs, including the Slindon Estate, Birling Gap and Drovers Estate. Their combined acreage (obtained by measuring the polygons in the GIS map files) makes the NT the third largest landowner in the South Downs.

4) Baron Leconfield (Lord Egremont) – Leconfield (Petworth) Estate: 14,000 acres


Image: Petworth House, Wikimedia Commons.

Petworth House itself is owned by the National Trust, but it remains the home of Lord Egremont (aka Baron Leconfield), who also retains control of the wider Leconfield Estate. The current Baron is an author of various history books, and his family estate also includes 3,000 acres in Cumbria.

5) Duke of Richmond – Goodwood Estate: 11,500 acres

The second Duke with extensive acres on the Downs is Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, the 11th Duke of Richmond. He is also inheritor of the Dukedoms of Lennox, Aubigny and Gordon.

The Goodwood Estate is stated on its own website to be 11,500 acres. Under the provisions of the Highways Act 1980, a map of the estate has been deposited with West Sussex Council. But they don’t publish them online for some reason, so I requested it from the council – you can see it here. I used this to trace the rough outline of the estate in the Googlemap above.

As this blog has previously revealed, Goodwood Estate Ltd got handed £379,085 in farm subsidies in 2015. Some of its woodlands have received Forestry Commission grants in the past, too. But what the estate is really famous for – and where it gets its real money from – is its panoply of sporting and leisure activities: horse-racing, golf courses, an aerodrome, and historic car racing at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

As one newspaper article about the Duke of Richmond puts it, he has “leverage[d] Goodwood’s formidable competitive advantages – the things that cannot be replicated elsewhere (except by other landed families, presumably): vast (and beautiful) space and a magnificent stately home”. But these modern businesses depend on owning land inherited down the centuries: “Even if they wanted to, it is difficult to imagine any company, oligarch or Middle Eastern princeling acquiring such an enormous chunk of southern England [nowadays].”

6) Viscount Gage – Firle Estate: 7,500 acres


Image: Eric Ravilious, ‘Chalk Downs’ (1935). Copyright expired as artist died over 70yrs ago

At the eastern end of the South Downs, beyond Brighton, is the Firle Estate – which runs to some 7,500 acres, according to this shooting website. As its owner, Viscount Gage, once recounted to Parliament back in 1997: “My family has farmed in East Sussex for over 500 years on the chalk farmland for which the area… is so well known.” 

At the time of his speech, plans were afoot to finally designate the South Downs as a National Park, half a century after the original Hobhouse Report recommended it be made one. The noble Viscount was not quite so keen, however: “The administration of a new national park would be more expensive than funding the existing [conservation] board… It could invite the danger of bureaucratic managers unfamiliar with the region who might introduce a surfeit of unnecessary signs and huts which would detract from the timeless beauty of our South Downs.” Still, Viscount Gage is clearly keen on conservation; his land is one of those with an Estate Plan shown on the NPA’s map, above. And his ancestor, the 6th Viscount, fought against the ‘Londonisation’ of Sussex in the interwar period.

7) Edward James trustees – West Dean Estate: 6,350 acres

The West Dean Estate is the bequest of Surrealist poet and patron Edward James, now managed by an educational trust. James is depicted in a famous ‘portrait’ by Magritte (though it only shows the back of his head). Besides West Dean, he also acquired land in the Mexican jungle, where he created orchid gardens and surreal sculpture parks.

8) Goring family – Wiston Estate: 6,000 acres

The Wiston Estate has been owned and managed by the Goring family since 1743. Today it markets itself on its wines, reviving the Roman tradition of growing vineyards on the South Downs. Two companies farm it, both owned by the Goring family: Findon Park Farm Ltd, which received farm subsidies of £258,851 in 2016, and Wiston Farms Ltd, recipients of £101,552 in 2016.

9) Sir Sebastian Anstruther, Baronet – Barlavington Estate: 3,200 acres

The Barlavington Estate’s submission to a recent consultation reveals it to be 3,200 acres. Sir Sebastian Anstruther was embroiled in a dispute in 2010 over his plans to dig up 75,000 tonnes of sand on his estate every year, within the National Park boundary. The application looks to have been withdrawn following the public outcry.

10) Stansted Park Estate – 1,800 acres

This used to be owned by the Earl of Bessborough, but he died without male heir, so the house and estate was left to the nation – but to be owned and administered by a bespoke charity, rather than the National Trust.

11) Viscount Mersey – Bignor Park Estate: 1,123 acres

The source for this estate’s acreage comes from measuring the map polygon for the Environmental Stewardship scheme it receives. Though relatively small, the estate still pulled in £159,308 in CAP in 2016.

12) Sir Brian Barttelot, Baronet – Stopham Estate: 1,000 acres

As this article states: “The Barttelot family is one of the oldest in Sussex – able to trace their genealogy back to William the Conqueror’s invading force.” 

TOTAL: 100,124 acres

A quarter of the South Downs National Park, owned by a dozen landowners.


12 thoughts on “Who owns the South Downs?

  1. We are an ancient land where land ownership has and always was distributed amongst the crown, the church, the universities and the feudal landowners. Arguably this has protected the landscape more than many countries.


    1. Hi Kale – that’s one view; I guess my point here is to raise the very under-discussed question of land ownership, and whether current patterns of land ownership deliver the most for the public good. Our National Parks are often beautiful but not exactly world-beating when it comes to species or wild habitats, for example – they are often simply preserving farmland. NPAs have some say over development planning, but they have to rely on the voluntary goodwill of landowners to cooperate in rejuvenating habitats. As my post above attempts to show, private landowners often have other agendas too, such as generating incomes, whether that’s from farming and farm subsidies, creating golf courses within the National Park, or attempting to quarry for sand. A new farm subsidy system that rewards public goods like environmental protection could help. But so could extra scrutiny of landowners directly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do not really see why it is wrong to try to make an estate economically viable. After all, a neglected estate is not something to enjoy. Woodlands degenerate, ponds silt up, and so on.

    What these estate maps shows me is that the ownership of a substantial and contiguous collection of estates in this part of Sussex confirms my hunch that this truly beautiful part of the UK remains well protected because it is owned by these great estates. The same is true looking at the estate maps of west Berkshire. I know this perhaps runs against the spirit and ideology of this website, but break up a great estate, which thinks hundreds of years ahead, and the fragmented ownership sees a rapid deterioration in the quality of that environment.


    1. Hi William, could you elaborate on what you means by ‘woodlands degenerating, ponds silt up’ and ‘a rapid deterioration in the quality of that environment’? If you mean that landscaped and manicured parkland can go wild if neglected, that’s of course true. But if you’re implying that nature is best when managed by people, I have my doubts. Nature has got along fine without us for millions of years. There has been a 56% drop in farmland birds since 1970 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/23/farmland-bird-decline-prompts-renewed-calls-for-agriculture-overhaul), driven by intensified agriculture and pesticide use. If even our National Parks can’t provide respite for nature from such agricultural pressures (let alone the instances of quarrying, golf courses and motorsport that I detail above), where can?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting article GUY but as William rightly stated these estates have to be economically viable to be run effectively and managed to be in the condition we love and admire today. Of course there have been past practises that have harmed the land but they were goverment policies that encouraged the mishandling of our countryside as Oliver Rackham stated in his epic enviromental awakening book 1980, Ancient Woodland, its History, Vegetation and Uses in England. What you have to remember GUY is that the british countryside is a palimpsest that has been altered many times by humans since the Bronze age there are unfortuantely only a few small areas of landscapes in the Uk that havent been altered by humans. To just allow nature take over would dramatically alter the countryside, to let it find its balance would take hundreds of years which just isnt going to happen whilst humans are on this planet.


  3. You are quite right about Nature getting along fine without us. However, while in remote areas of Canada or the Amazon where nature is very much in charge, it does not matter if a lake silts up because other lakes are being formed all the time. The difference in our intensely crowded Island is that such natural self management cannot any longer exists. I have always understood, and this is borne out by the active management of nature reserves in the UK by the Nature Trusts, that to maintain a nature reserve in the best possible state for bio diversity and security, the reserves have to be managed.

    For example, down land in Southern England contains many rare plants, but the down lands are often created by regular grazing. Stop the grazing and before long the down land is covered by adventitious trees and becomes woodland with the loss of down land flora and fauna..

    Furthermore, I was brought up next to a farm where shooting took place and because predators such as weasels were controlled, the abundance of bird and wildlife was as great as one would find in any nature reserve. It was, for the most part, a livestock farm and such farms are better for the environment than arable farms. The Countryside Restoration Trust has made a good example of how to encourage wildlife in places such as Cambridgeshire but arable farming is still much less environmentally friendly than livestock.

    Liked by 1 person

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