Mapping the habitats of England’s ten largest institutional landowners

This post is by Tim Harris and Guy Shrubsole.

Image: Lowland calcareous grassland, a Priority Habitat, at Tyneham in Dorset, owned by the Ministry of Defence.

Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s landscapes has thrown a spotlight on how poorly protected many of our remaining habitats are, and raised questions about what land we target for nature restoration. Which geographic areas are prioritised for conservation effort is a crucial question for governments globally and here in the UK – and also for the landowners who own large chunks of the country.

So how are England’s 10 largest landowners using their land? What sorts of habitats do they own? And what more can these large landowners be doing to help fix the climate and ecological emergencies? 

These were questions we started investigating together about six months ago. Tim is doing a PhD in botany at the Natural History Museum and writes a blog examining how the Church uses its land and property; Guy is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth and author of Who Owns England?. 

In August, the first fruits of our investigations saw the light of day – Friends of the Earth’s press release (covered by the Guardian here) revealing the woodland cover of England’s top ten landowners, with the Duchy of Cornwall and the Church Commissioners ranked last. We’ve reproduced the table of results below.

LandownerAcreage owned in EnglandAcreage woodland%age woodland
Forestry Commission489,814414,29385%
National Trust474,64184,43318%
MOD397,09860,31115%
Crown Estate264,233 (landward acreage only)40,55815%
United Utilities141,00016,84912%
Highways England114,31413,53812%
Network Rail100,52510,69311%
RSPB127,03212,13310%
Duchy of Cornwall130,6397,3616%
Church Commissioners105,000 (mapped 73,000 acres)3,2153%-4%
Total2,344,296 (7% of England)663,38428%
England32,000,0003,240,00010%

Our methodology – explained in more detail in the press release – was in two stages:

  1. Assemble the land ownership maps (pieced together by Guy – with stirling help from Nick Riley, who mapped the Duchy’s lands: huge thanks, Nick!) 
  2. Intersect these with the National Forest Inventory, to discover how much woodland cover is owned by each landowner (analysed by Tim)

But this was only part of our investigations. Tim went on to also examine what each landowner owns in terms of designated nature reserves and other Priority Habitats, and what opportunities exist for these landowners to restore degraded land. So in this post, we present the results, along with some nice maps.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)

A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI or ‘triple-S-I’) is a formal conservation designation – essentially a nature reserve that’s been given legal protections by the government. SSSIs cover about 8% of England. So we decided to look at how many SSSIs are owned by England’s ten biggest landowners. 

This generates a somewhat different ranking to our woodland league table:

LandownerAcreage owned in EnglandAcreage SSSIs%age SSSIs
RSPB127,03284,44766%
MOD397,098197,47150%
United Utilities141,00066,18947%
Crown Estate264,233 landward acres + 289,526 acres foreshore = 553,759 252,645 46%
National Trust474,641164,88835%
Duchy of Cornwall130,63944,51634%
Forestry Commission489,814144,69330%
Church Commissioners105,000 (mapped 73,000 acres)1,4922% (out of 73k acres mapped)
Network Rail100,5251,8371.8%
Highways England114,3149420.8%
Total2,633,822 (includes Crown Estate foreshore)959,119 36%

NB: The Crown Estate’s foreshore was excluded from our woodland league table (as you can’t grow trees at sea) but obviously it’s important for other SSSIs and Priority Habitats. 

We can see that – unsurprisingly – the RSPB tops the list with 66% of its land designated as SSSIs; but perhaps more surprisingly, the MOD comes second and United Utilities third. Both own lots of remote moorland that’s valuable for wildlife as well as being important watersheds for reservoirs and deemed useful terrain for army training. 

Bottom of the list are – also rather unsurprisingly – Network Rail and Highways England: not many scientifically important nature reserves next to main roads or railways (and plenty that have been destroyed due to road-building and HS2). More disappointingly, we can see that the Church Commissioners also fare poorly – not only having very low woodland cover, but also just 2% of their land is designated as SSSIs.

To give just one example of an SSSI owned by one of these major landowners: the Duchy of Cornwall owns the whole of the SSSI site at Greenscoombe Wood, Luckett – which is designated because of the Heath Fritillary butterfly.

Site condition

But not all SSSIs are in the same condition of health: many have been badly degraded due to intensive agriculture or development. 

Natural England keeps records of the quality of SSSIs on a per hectare basis. Some hectares of a site may be designated favourable. Currently only 39% of the area of land covered by SSSIs in England is in favourable condition. Other hectares may be designated unfavourable improving, unfavourable declining, or unfavourable no change. Occasionally some hectares within a site are designated as destroyed

The 4 maps below shows SSSIs owned by England’s top ten landowners (divided up by Northern England, Midlands, Thames Valley and South-western England, due to file size). To find out more about each site, click on the dots in the map, and zoom in to see the landownership boundaries. In order to simplify the maps, we regarded the overall condition of an individual site as favourable (green dots) if more than half of its area is favourable; or unfavourable (red dots) if half or less of its area is designated as favourable.

In May 2019, the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan set a target: “Restoring 75% of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition, securing their wildlife value for the long term”. Clearly England’s biggest landowners will have a key role to play in helping meet this goal.

Site monitoring

The legal designation of a site as an SSSI places management responsibilities on the landowner. It also places responsibilities on Natural England to monitor its condition. (SSSIs are a form of conservation protected area unique to the UK. The IUCN has taken on the role of assessing the management approach taken in all protected areas around the world. This classification does not place most SSSIs in categories regarded as providing the highest levels of protection). Funding of Natural England to carry out this important role of monitoring England’s flagship biodiversity sites has been consistently cut by successive governments. This underfunding has meant that Natural England has not been able to visit each site as often as guidelines require. 

In this context, landowners are under even greater responsibility to ensure that the condition of SSSIs are maintained at as high a level as possible. To this end, some of these ten major landowners (some of whom have far greater financial resources than Natural England) take an active role in monitoring the biodiversity on SSSIs. This more active involvement in biodiversity monitoring needs to be replicated across major landowners and the results need to be more publicly available. 

Priority Habitats

The decline in biodiversity in England is well documented. The decline has resulted in declining abundances of familiar species as well as local extirpations of rarer species. Protecting and nurturing a wide range of different habitats across England is an important element of any strategy to turn around these declines. The total land area designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England is relatively small. Conservation and restoration of significant proportions of natural habitats across England will require greater conservation effort outside SSSIs, as well as inside them.

In order to protect precious habitats, we need to know what habitats we already have and where they are. One attempt at doing this takes the form of the Priority Habitat Inventory. While this vast database has its limitations, it maps the distribution in England of sixty-five legally recognised natural habitats known to be important for biodiversity. 

With an understanding of the areas owned by each of England’s ten largest landowners, we can show which of these landowners own nationally significant areas of Priority Habitat. First off, here’s the sheer acreage of Priority Habitats owned by the top ten landowners, ranked by percentage of their overall landholdings: 

LandownerAcreage owned in EnglandAcreage Priority Habitats%age Priority Habitats
RSPB127,03299,06678%
United Utilities141,00093,46066%
MOD397,098253,43864%
National Trust474,641284,72460%
Duchy of Cornwall130,63965,75350%
Crown Estate264,233 landward acres + 289,526 acres foreshore = 553,759 200,30236%
Forestry Commission489,814158,82732%
Network Rail100,52512,31212%
Highways England114,31411,26810%
Church Commissioners105,000 (mapped 73,000 acres)4,9075%
Total2,633,822 (includes Crown Estate foreshore)1,184,05745%

Of course this topline measure only tells you so much. More interesting perhaps is what happens when you look at the breakdown by Priority Habitat type – so, for example, how many acres of coastal salt marsh are owned by the Crown Estate, or how much blanket bog belongs to United Utilities. We’ve detailed all that in this Google Spreadsheet. The second tab in the spreadsheet also shows you how nationally significant these stats are – in other words, whether a landowners’ acreage of, say, upland hay meadow comprises a sizeable percentage of the national total. 

All of these landowners own nationally significant areas of habitat. Findings that stand out include:

  • The Duchy of Cornwall owns 5% of England’s calaminarian grassland – a rare type of grassland that grows on mining spoil heaps. This may stem from the Duchy’s involvement in historic mining operations in Cornwall, and extensive mineral rights.
  • The Crown Estate – thanks to its traditional ownership of much of the foreshore – owns 57% of England’s Priority Habitat mudflats and 24% of its coastal salt marsh.
  • The National Trust owns 39% of England’s Priority Habitat maritime cliffs and slopes – thanks to its efforts to buy up stretches of the coast since it launched Operation Neptune in the 1960s.
  • Whilst the Church Commissioners once again languish at the bottom of our rankings, they do at least own 90 acres of traditional orchards and 2,224 acres of coastal & floodplain grazing marsh – the bulk of the latter likely to be in their landholdings on the marshy Hoo Peninsula in Kent. 

The 2 maps below give a snapshot of some of the Priority Habitats owned by England’s top ten landowners. KEY: A huge number of land patches have been registered as Priority Habitat. Due to file size, we particularly focus on Priority Habitats owned by major landowners in western Cornwall as an example of the situation across the country. The first map shows coastal Priority Habitats and the second shows inland Priority Habitats. The coloured outlines denote land ownership: yellow for Duchy of Cornwall, bright blue for Highways England, pink for National Trust, brown for RSPB, beige for Crown Estate, dark green for Forestry Commission, dark blue for Ministry of Defence and purple for Network Rail.

How could landowners do better?

So how might England’s ten largest landowners do more to support nature? It’s clear from the above league tables that, whilst some major landowners have high percentages of SSSIs and Priority Habitats on their land, others do not. What’s more, all the above landowners possess quantities of low-grade farmland where there are opportunities for nature restoration.

Not all farmland in England is highly productive. The Agricultural Land Classification system considers five classes of farmland quality. Relatively poor quality Grade 4 land offers potential locations where natural regeneration of biodiversity rich habitats may be possible.

The Agricultural Land Classification scheme describes Grade 4 land as: “land with severe limitations which significantly restrict the range of crops and/or level of yields. It is mainly suited to grass with occasional arable crops (for example cereals and forage crops) the yields of which are variable. In moist climates, yields of grass may be moderate to high but there may be difficulties using the land. The grade also includes arable land that is very dry because of drought.”

A comparable ‘land sparing’ approach has been considered by scientists from the conservation and forestry sectors.

The two maps linked to directly below show examples of land owned by the ten landowners considered in this blog that is Grade 4 land and currently not designated as a wildlife site. KEY: The Grade 4 land is coloured salmon pink; land owned by the top ten landowners just has coloured boundaries: red for Church Commissioners, yellow for Duchy of Cornwall, bright blue for Highways England, pink for National Trust, brown for RSPB, beige for Crown Estate, dark green for Forestry Commission, dark blue for Ministry of Defence, purple for Network Rail and pale blue for United Utilities. 

Opportunity map 1

Opportunity map 2

It’s not for us to suggest what could or should be done in these areas of land – it may be that it’s ideal for naturally-regenerated oak woodland, or for rewetting as a wetland. Or it could be that ecological site surveys uncover pockets of species-rich grassland on the land currently not included in Natural England’s Priority Habitats Inventory – in which case, it should be carefully preserved and maintained. The recent finding of an exceptionally rare plant in a small patch of land near a car park in Thetford shows the importance of undertaking species-level surveys as part of any restoration work.

Conclusions  

The lack of transparency surrounding land ownership data in England has meant this analysis of habitats owned by major landowners has never been done before, to our knowledge. We hope it provides a starting point for more such research in future. What other environmental datasets could be usefully viewed through the prism of land ownership? If more spatial data on other landowners (such as the aristocracy) becomes available, what might it show about the condition of habitats on their estates? And can league tables of landowners’ ecological performance be used to help drive nature recovery?

Government goals to protect and restore nature will, after all, fail if landowners are not made to be part of the solution – particularly in a country like England that has such concentrated land ownership. It’s clear that all landowners – and not just the ones profiled here – must do much more to manage their landholdings for the benefit of nature and the climate.

7 thoughts on “Mapping the habitats of England’s ten largest institutional landowners

    1. Hi Keith, they should be there, but owing to the size of the files they take a while to load – maybe give it a minute for the page to load and see if the maps appear? Best wishes, Guy

      1. Hello Guy, I’m afraid they do not load (today) even after 30 minutes (yesterday I had time to read the whole blog and check the acreage of the Woodland Trust – they are not in the top ten – and the last four maps had still not appeared.)

        Today, I noticed that the browser indicator – that the page was still loading – stopped spinning within about one minute…. after the first two maps had loaded (South Western and Thames Valley) There is the white space for all the remaining maps, buy they do not appear. Maybe it is hitting some other limit?

        Excellent work, by the way!

    1. Hello Guy, I am now using Chrome Version 86.0.4240.75 (Official Build) (x86_64) – which is up to date – on MacOS Version 10.14.6 (Mojave) (I cannot yet upgrade to MacOS Catalina because of some heritage 32-bit driver software)

      When I checked, Chrome updated itself (good) but the result is similar to before: I now have three maps showing the SSSIs (Northern England is missing) and one map of Priority Habitats (inland Priority Habitats is missing).

      I also have Safari Version 13.0.4 (14608.4.9.1.4) and when I tried that ALL the maps loaded, although – as you say – it did take a little while:-)

      This therefore appears to be either a specific Google Chrome problem or a Google/Apple software conflict? However, looking at memory usage (considering I now have two browsers loading your maps simultaneously) I can see I am using almost all of my memory – and that Safari now reports “This web page is using significant memory. Closing it may improve the responsiveness of your Mac”

      I now think that Chrome is deciding unilaterally to restrict memory usage – it may have a filesize limit(?) – and is stopping loading all the maps without giving a warning.

  1. Yep, I am using iPadOS 14, Safari & Chrome, and currently no maps. I am guessing that this is a techie issue. Thanks for your work. As a slight digression Guy, have you heard of the Ecological Land Cooperative, they work to buy land in England for new entrant organic farmers, due to English land prices being prohibitively high or to difficulties acquiring the land for agroecological projects etcetera.

    The Germans have something similar to the ELC which has been a great success, called Land Cooperatives.
    http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1111078/FULLTEXT02

    And obviously the Landless Workers Movement (MST) have achieved great strides in Agrarian Land Reform in South America and the consequent community building and poverty alleviation.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landless_Workers'_Movement

    If a constituted group could raise the necessary funds, we could possibly start an agroecological farm near to North Solihull (where widespread poverty reduces lifespan) as a community project serving organic care packages. If we built a caretaker tiny house on this land with compost toilet it could be the beginnings of a cohousing public cooperative. Unfortunately, a lot of the land out near Coleshill (in the peri urban area) is either owned by an unknown landowner or by the Featherston-Dilke family who customarily charge tenant farmers for the ‘privilege’ of working.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxstoke_Castle

    I need to read about Community Land Trusts at some point. If city communities could migrate onto the land and away from expensive ‘crammed in’ city accommodation, low wages and the consequent ‘alienation from nature’ that might help them to be happier and more prosperous like the MST etcetera. There would be more people acting as land stewards or agroecologists. If you also included a 20 hour working week as a goal, workers might also eventually achieve the ‘civilised leisure’ envisioned by Bertrand Russell.

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