The ancient watercolour that showed the way for the National Trust’s transformation of the Killerton estate

Painted in the 19th-century by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, the artwork has spurred the National Trust to recreate a wildlife-rich environment that can withstand climate change.

The National Trust has turned to a 19th-century watercolour of the Killerton estate in Devon to develop a landscape vision for the next 50 years.

Thought to have been painted by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, whose descendants gifted Killerton to the Trust in 1944, the work, rediscovered during lockdown, shows thriving grounds thick with mature trees and hedgerows, broken up by scrubland nurturing Highland cattle. The charity now intends to recreate an environment that, albeit rather different, is as wildlife-rich as when Sir Thomas put brush to paper in 1860–80.

‘We want to ensure the estate now evolves to capture more carbon and to help the land, wildlife and livestock cope with more extreme weather events,’ says project manager Paul Hawkins.

Historic watercolour c. 1860-80 at Killerton

‘Currently just under 10% of the Killerton Estate is priority habitat – and the combination of work we are doing to protect and enhance these areas together with changes in management should boost nature and hopefully demonstrate to others what can be achieved.

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‘The estate as it is now may look green and beautiful, but the reality is that so much of the wildlife that was [there] when the picture was painted has been lost.’

In a bid to attract species such as otters, herons, kingfishers and orange-tip butterflies, as well as improve and diversify habitats, create Nature corridors, soak up carbon and shelter the estate from flooding and the effects of climate change, the charity will plant nearly 21⁄2 miles of hedgerows, restore existing ones, re-establish the flood plains for the river that runs through Killerton and create 44 acres of woodland and 99 of wood pasture. A parallel project will see the removal of invasive species to protect the property’s ancient trees.

In a further link to the estate’s history, the countryside apprentice the Trust has employed to help look after the land, Harry Whiting, is the great grandson of a former head gardener, Henry Thorne, who tended the grounds in the 1950s.