An image of a highland cow tucking into fresh hay.

Embracing Springtime with the National Trust: A Journey Beyond Country Houses

Embracing Springtime with the National Trust: A Journey Beyond Country Houses


Published on 5 June 2024

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A profile picture of Emma Squire Blog post by: Em Squire – RENEW PhD Student


Recently, I had the privilege of embarking on a journey into the heart of springtime with my fellow RENEW PhD students. Our destination? The National Trust’s Killerton Estate, 2,600 hectares of sprawling farmland and woodland nestled in the picturesque countryside of Devon.

Many people are unaware of the nature conservation work that the National Trust carries out, and we wanted to experience firsthand a local estate’s approach to biodiversity renewal and getting people into nature. For three days, we immersed ourselves in enriching experiences that informed our research journey and left lasting impressions, and we extend a huge thank you to Anna Harrison, Killerton’s Nature Engagement Officer, for making our activities possible.

An image of a gateway at Killerton Estate, Devon

Above. The National Trust’s Killerton Estate: a gateway from formal gardens to landscape restoration. Photograph by: Caleb Parkin

Establishing a Sense of Place

Our PhD retreat began with a cream tea and a leisurely walk through the estate. This helped us orientate ourselves in the heart of nature, to better understand and study it. Under rare blue skies, we wandered through wet grass, watching the leaves unfurling and spotting wildlife all the while discussing our work and making the most of the opportunity to share our experiences and ideas.

An image of two people walking across grass towards a number of trees.

Above. Exploring the estate and taking time to share our experiences and ideas Photograph by: Em Squire

We settled into thatched adjoining cottages ready to invite Professor Rosie Hails, the Director of Nature and Science at the National Trust, for a fireside chat. Here we delved into discussions about her journey from academia to providing strategic policy leadership to support the delivery of nature objectives across the Trust. Rosie is not only a visionary leader, but also a hands-on advocate for evidence-based decision-making, continually pushing the boundaries to ensure that conservation efforts are grounded in sound scientific principles. As PhD students working within such an interdisciplinary project as RENEW, we have all come from different backgrounds, professions and disciplines, making this a great opportunity to learn from each other and think about where our own academic journey and career path may take us in the future.

An image of the PhD team sat with Rosie Hails from the National Trust.

Above. Fireside chat with Professor Rosie Hails, the Director of Nature and Science at the National Trust. Photograph by: Catriona

Inspired by Tenant Farmers

The highlight of our second day was to meet with Countryside Manager, Tim Dafforn who took us to visit a visionary young couple, Amelia and Jason Greenway of Springwater Farm, tenant farmers on the estate. They have a fundamental belief in farming harmoniously with nature for its future protection. Their herd of Highland cattle are a hardy breed that happily graze amongst bramble and thicket, their lighter weight allows them to graze with minimal impact on the clay soils, thus improving biodiversity and ecosystems. The Greenways are at the forefront of nature-friendly farming and their passion for regenerative farming and positively engaging others is inspiring.

An image of the PhD team standing in a farm near a barn.

Above. Sharing a family’s passion for regenerative farming. Photograph by: Amelia Greenway

Countryside Manager, Tim Dafforn talked and walked us through the full vision for the estate’s landscape recovery plan which will be delivered over the next five years. This includes historic parkland restoration (replanting lost trees, protecting veteran trees and restoring wildflower meadows), introducing 3.6km of new trails, planting over 100,000 trees in new native woodland, hedgerows and wood pasture and restoring 34 hectares of the Culm floodplain by creating meadows, and planting wet woodland to hold more water.

An image of Tim Daffron explaining the layout of the estate.

Above. Tim Daffron takes us through the extensive plans for landscape recovery on the estate. Photograph by: Em Squire

Knowledge Sharing and Collaborations

During the afternoon, we dedicated some time to our own work and participated in a workshop on qualitative research methods. Later that evening, we had the pleasure of hosting Anna Harrison for an informal knowledge-sharing session. She enlightened us about her endeavours to encourage people into, and to connect with nature:

“Killerton Estate’s location between growing communities and on the doorstep of Exeter city provides an exciting opportunity for us to put people at the heart of our nature recovery work. My position as Nature Engagement Officer involves reaching out to these communities to understand the importance of access to nature and what we can do as a countryside to ensure local people are listened to and welcomed in our spaces. This means inviting local groups to get involved with tree planting initiatives, meeting people where they are with nature-based outreach, and creating spaces where people can truly connect to nature.

Some of our keystone projects include working with local schools to grow dog violet flowers in preparation for butterfly reintroductions, growing trees from seed with Exeter Age UK and Devon Wildlife Trust, and supporting our visitors and volunteers to contribute vital ecological data via citizen science platforms. 

It was brilliant to welcome the RENEW group to Killerton in April. The experience provided a great opportunity for our team and tenants to learn about the exciting and varied research students are involved with, so I’m thrilled to hear that the benefit was mutual.”

Anna Harrison, Nature Engagement Officer, National Trust, Killerton Estate


This exchange sparked a flurry of exciting ideas for potential collaborations, including poetry workshops and future engagement initiatives both at Killerton and within the University of Exeter. Personally, I found this exchange particularly intriguing, as my research focuses on ways to involve a more diverse range of users in citizen science biodiversity recording, an activity which is well promoted on the estate. The conversation was full of ideas for working together in the future, showing that there’s a lot of potential for future exchanges.

An image of a highland cow tucking into fresh hay.

Above. The highlight of the trip – a very photogenic Highland cow! Photograph by: Caleb Parkin

We all came away with a much better understanding of the research, engagement, collaboration, planning and costs involved in such a large-scale landscape recovery project. We were inspired by the people working for or with the National Trust with their passion and strong belief in the benefits their work will have on nature and people, now and in the future.

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