A former shooting estate is being transformed into an “edible landscape” that restores nature at the same time as producing food, its new owner said.
Malaysian-born model, actress and entrepreneur Mandy Lieu bought 925-acre Ewhurst Park, which once belonged to the Duke of Wellington, near Basingstoke in Hampshire two years ago.
After leaving the land largely alone for the first year to establish baselines of what was there, she is now setting about turning it into a mosaic of habitats that provides food for humans and wildlife at the same time.
Fields of spring barley, a good cover crop for the gamebirds previously hunted on the estate, have been replaced with mixed plant cover crops including chicory and clover to start improving the soil.
Grassland is being restored, with some grazed by organic long horn and belted Galloway cattle, iron age boars and Tamworth pig sows have been introduced to movable enclosures in the woodland to recreate natural processes, and drains are being blocked up to restore areas that were once wetland.
Beavers will soon be introduced into an enclosure on the estate, trees will be planted in suitable places, work on a market garden has begun and there are plans for pockets of “forest gardens” on woodland edges, with productive trees, shrubs and perennials along with grazing animals.
Ms Lieu said the land also provided wild food that could be foraged, including mint, blackberries, raspberries, basil, hazelnuts and mushrooms and even Jerusalem artichokes that are growing there.
She hopes to use food from the estate for her west London restaurant, The Good Plot, and host regular public foraging days at Ewhurst, as well as community, school and training activities.
The aim is also to convene farmers and landowners looking at rewilding.
Ms Lieu said she had been inspired to buy the estate and restore it for nature and organic food production by lockdown, when, she said: “We all had this massive craving to be reconnected with nature.
“Everybody had a wake-up call that how out of touch we’ve become, myself included.”
She believes it was always with her subconsciously, saying: “I left Malaysia when I was quite young and I was very fortunate to have a career in media and movies and modelling and I got to travel the world, but always whenever I had downtime, I found myself sneaking off to go hiking.
“I miss how connected I once was, growing up as a child in rural South East Asia, where the backyard of your home is the forest and we never really appreciate or even see it that way because it was so normal,” Ms Lieu said, adding she wanted that for her four children.
She says taking on the historic estate was daunting at first, but she did not have the burden of inheriting the land from a long line of landowners, so did not have to manage it in the way it has been in the past.
The vision for the estate is to get people to reconnect with nature, restore natural processes and regenerate the land, Ms Lieu said, adding she sees herself as a facilitator to bring together different expertise and ideas for restoring nature.
Rewilding projects – which focus on allowing natural processes to be restored to the point that nature can take care of itself – have come under fire from some quarters for taking land away from food production.
But Ewhurst was not previously highly productive, and Ms Lieu said the estate will still be producing food under the new scheme.
She said: “What we’re doing at Ewhurst is we are a land and nature restoration project.
“We’re trying to create an edible mosaic habitat that produces food for humans and flora and fauna and to try to find that balance of co-existence between men and nature.”
Ms Lieu added: “It’s important for us to learn to live lightly and productively on the land.”
She said the journey has been “jumping in at the deep end”, as she did not know anything about farming or land management, so she has been reaching out to neighbours, as well as experts on nature and ecosystems.
Ms Lieu has also had to learn about British wildlife, which is very different to what she knew as she grew up.
Red kites, goshawks, nesting herons and kingfishers are among the wildlife that can be seen at Ewhurst, while summer grasslands that Ms Lieu said were silent just two years ago are now alive with insects such as crickets, fulfilling a key aim of hers to bring the sounds of nature back to the land.
But a less pleasant encounter with another stalwart of British nature while foraging wild mint had her scrambling for safety from what she thought was a host of leeches – only to be told they were harmless slugs.