British Royal Family Urged to Rewild Sprawling Estates

Petition calls on royal family to lead by example ahead of climate summit.

Chris Packham and Jamal Edwards
Chris Packham (shown here with Jamal Edwards in 2019) is helping to lead the rewilding petition.

John Phillips/Getty Images

A new petition featuring the signatures of more than 100,000 people is calling on the British royal family to help fight climate change and improve biodiversity by rewilding all or a portion of their considerable land holdings. 

The conservation appeal, delivered to Buckingham Palace by a parade of more than 100 children and organized by Wild Card, comes ahead of the Queen and Prince Charles’ attendance at the Glasgow Climate Summit later this month. 

“Despite the royals being increasingly outspoken eco-warriors, much of their land is considered by experts to be an 'ecological disaster zone', featuring degraded landscapes such as grouse moors and deer stalking estates,” a press release from Wild Card states. 

According to one estimate, the royals own 1.4% of the United Kingdom, or over 800,000 acres. Even allowing a small portion, such as the 50,000-acre Balmoral estate in Scotland, to rewild would have massive biodiversity impacts. In this example, Wild Card explains, Balmoral should be a temperate rainforest but has instead been converted into a sporting estate for deer hunting and grouse shooting. 

“If rewilded, the Balmoral estate could see the reintroduction of lynx, beavers, and wolves, which would help stimulate the return of rich and diverse ecosystems,” the group wrote in an open letter to the Queen in June. “Bison or long-horned cattle could also be released to take the ecological place of now-extinct ancient aurochs.”

Chris Packham, a conservationist and broadcaster who helped lead the petition parade last weekend, told the UK Guardian that royal land has overall less forest cover than the national average. “With 1.4% of the land surface they could do enormous good. Leading by example is the best way to lead and a lot of people follow their example,” he added.

The Great Rewilding of an Irish Baron’s Estate

For proof of how rewilding can transform biodiversity, look no further than the 1,700-acre Dunsany Estate in Ireland. After inheriting the property and title of baron in 2011, Randal Plunkett decided to abandon the centuries-old farming and grazing practices on nearly half the estate’s holdings and let nature decide what was best.  

“I wanted to return the land to the wild, not just preserve what little natural habitat remained,” Plunkett, an Irish filmmaker, director, and passionate vegan and environmentalist, told The Independent. “So we locked up a huge part of the estate and it was militant. No footfall most of the year, no paths or interference. That’s not to say we abandoned the land; we’re guardians keeping a distant, watchful eye. And the results speak for themselves.”

Where the estate once had only three species of grass, it now hosts more than twenty-three. Native trees ranging from oak and ash to locust and black poplar are now more numerous. Birds, insects, and other animals—some not seen in the region for decades—are suddenly returning in droves. 

“The return of grasses and plants welcomes the return of insects and rodents, who are then followed by birds and small animals,” he said. “Over time, there’s more bushes, more trees, more hawthorn berries, ivy, spiders and butterflies. The grass grows long, so rodents flourish with more protection and then the predators come. Just yesterday, I saw a red kite flying overhead. If it sees below a meadow rich in life, it’s going to stick around.”

Plunkett has also partnered with Ireland's first-ever dedicated wildlife hospital—the WRI Wildlife Hospital—and opened Dunsany as a sanctuary for rehabilitated animals. So far, according to the Irish Post, otters, fox cubs, and buzzards have all found new homes within rewilded estate grounds. 

"Some of the animals released by the hospital will end up here and others will move on, as is their nature, but it's great to be able to give them a head start and it all adds to what I am trying to do here in Dunsany," he said. 

Your Move, Your Majesty

As for what might happen to any portion of the royal estates, hope presently rests in the outcome of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next month and any inspiration to act that may follow. Rewilding certainly seems like low-hanging fruit that would encourage other estate holders to adopt, but for now it’s a wait-and-see situation. 

“Members of the royal family have a longstanding commitment to conservation and biodiversity, and for over 50 years have championed the preservation and development of natural ecosystems,” a royal spokesperson said regarding the rewilding petition. 

“The royal estates are constantly evolving and looking for new ways to continue improving biodiversity, conservation and public access to green spaces, as well as being home to thriving communities and businesses which form part of the fabric of the local community.”