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Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Supporting nature recovery is a vital part of tackling the linked crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. However, the vast majority of UK land is privately owned, making it essential to engage landowners and farmers in the process. Regardless of the policies and grant schemes government might introduce, it will still be Oxfordshire’s farmers and landowners who will determine what happens on their land. But who are these people and organisations, and what are their priorities and motivations? To help understand the full picture, the Oxfordshire Treescapes Project has mapped ownership of 75% of the county. Land ownership data is very hard to get hold of, and our data cannot be regarded as 100% accurate, but it gives a clear impression. Our landownership database is a valuable resource that, if used intelligently and sensitively, can build links between farmers and landowners and the rest of the community, and help to better understand their willingness to engage with nature recovery.


Land ownership in Oxfordshire is not equally distributed. Overall, we estimate that Oxfordshire has a total of around 250,000 landowners out of a population of close to 700,000. But most of these own very small areas of land, essentially their own private home or business. Only around 800 landowners have holdings over 20 hectares (about 30 football pitches). And in all, 170 landowners own half the county and just 26 own a quarter of it. The bad news is that half the county is owned by 0.07% of its landowners. But the good news is that if we can persuade just these 170 landowners to participate in nature recovery that’s half the job done.


Who are the biggest landowners? Some like the Blenheim Estate or Christchurch College are well known. But others less so. Nils Penser, for example, founder of a successful Swedish Real Estate business. Or the Calcutts and the Smiths, both local farming businesses.


One way to understand the motivations of these landowners is to consider their stated aims. Blenheim for example, says that it “has a remit to share and protect its estate for future generations”, which must surely include nature recovery. And similarly, the National Trust says “People need historic, beautiful and natural places”. But for an educational charity such as Christchurch College it’s a different story. The charity commission requires them to generate profits to support their educational purpose, which will encourage them to engage in property development. And in the case of individual landowners like the Pensers, their motivations are personal to them.


A focus on the larger landowners is one way forward. Another is to try to classify landowners into types.

Most land is in the hands of private farms, but Oxfordshire’s 56 great estates own 17% of the county, more than Oxford’s Universities and colleges, government, councils, conservation charities, and the church put together.

The highest concentration of these estates is in the South Cotswolds area, but there are also clusters in the south, south-east and north-east of the county.


What is the role of these estates in nature recovery? Oxfordshire’s draft Nature Recovery Network sets out the highest priority areas for biodiversity in the county. Estates own 17% of the county, but 21% of the recovery areas, and 24% of the biodiversity rich core areas. This is perhaps not surprising given both that these are highly attractive landscape areas, and in some cases they were the hunting forests of the past. But it means estates have an important role to play in nature recovery, and hopefully their long link to the past should strengthen their interest.


To understand their motivations better, we suggest that estates can be further classified into two sub-types. Some such as the Blenheim Estate are inherited and passed down from generation to generation, while others are acquired by the more recently wealthy. Can one expect these acquired estate owners to have a similarly strong interest in nature recovery as the inheritors? Does Jemima Khan, for example, owner of Kiddlington Hall, sister to ethical investor Ben Goldsmith and environment minister Zak, and previously associate editor of the New Statesman, have a strong interest in the environment? Or take old Etonian Nicholas Johnston: he uses Great Tew estate for stone quarrying, shooting classes and rally driving lessons. He also bought the Bantham Estate in Devon because he holidayed there as a child. He said: “I think there is a freedom for my children in being able to run around, a freedom of self-expression, which is wonderful for them.” He has said he wants his children to take the estate on as a long-term project. Does he also imagine that his acquired estate will establish itself as an inherited estate in 2 or 3 generations time? What aspects of the estate will he want to preserve, in this case? Will a wish to pass it on to future generations encourage a nature-positive approach? Other acquired estate owners in Oxfordshire are the King of Bahrain – sometimes described as one of the world’s longest standing dictators - or Hugh Osmond, founder of Punch taverns, Pizza Express and Strada restaurants. And then of course there is Jeremy Clarkson and his Diddly Squat Farm – almost impossible to place!


The Tatler suggests that one thing that estate owners might have in common is a fascination with prize-winning cattle. They claim that estate owners see the well-bred cow as a status symbol. Ornamental yet practical; majestic but homely; passive yet forceful. These cows are seen as a vital part of the estate landscape, breaking up the view from the library past the haha to the pastoral countryside beyond, and filling it with life and colour.

If this is true, what does this tell us about nature recovery? Clearly estate owners, who are some of the largest owners of the priority areas for nature recovery in Oxfordshire, are going to be more motivated by solutions that maintain cattle as part of our farming systems and management of the countryside. And given that these powerful landowners will ultimately determine how Oxfordshire’s land is used, does this mean that nature recovery stands more chance of success if we promote integrated farming systems that work with nature than in trying to remove cattle from the land and promote rewilding? It’s hard to say, but what we can be sure of is that more research into farmer and landowner motivations would shed light on the best ways forward for nature recovery.


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