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Rewild the Royals

The British Royal Family are the biggest landowning family in the country. The Royals possess not just vast landholdings and considerable wealth, but also far-reaching influence and an ancient role as stewards of the land and people. We believe there has never been a more urgent need for this stewardship. With land, money, power and popularity, the Royals are in a unique position to help reverse the rapid and ongoing decline of Britain’s natural heritage.

The Royals are evidently deeply concerned about the state of the planet. Prince Charles has done invaluable good for environmental causes over the years, and his son Prince William recently launched the Earthshot prize. We sincerely celebrate these actions, but with great power comes great responsibility, and we believe there is more to be done, here on our own shores.

Much of the land owned by the Royal Family is in a dismal ecological state. The Duchy of Cornwall estate, owned by Prince Charles, has an average tree coverage of just 6%, less than half the already-terrible national average of 13%. Meanwhile, the vast Balmoral estate in Scotland - owned directly by the Queen - is managed as a sporting estate, suppressing the rare temperate rainforest that would naturally grow there.

The Royal family have the power to lead by example and regenerate the natural habitats on their own land. Just as kings and queens of yore held this kingdom through war and famine, the Royal Family have the chance to lead the charge in the greatest fight of our age: the fight against climate change.

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The Royal Family’s relationship with Britain’s land is ancient and complex. The Queen technically owns all the land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. When you buy land in the UK, you are really just buying a right to the land, a right that can be revoked at any time by the Crown (though in modern times this legal arrangement is largely irrelevant).

The Royals’ entwinement with British land does not stop there, however. Over the past 1000 years the Royal Family has built up a vast and intricate network of land holdings, via an esoteric set of semi-feudal legal entities that have survived, and for the most part thrived, during the various political upheavals of Britain’s history as a monarchy.

The Royal Family owns or holds significant interests in land via the following legal entities:

  • Land privately owned by the Royal Family (owned in the same way that a normal person would own land in the UK, with the same rights and control). Land owned by the Royal Family in this manner totals ~ 72,000 acres (Sandringham Estate, 20,000 acres; Balmoral Estate 50,000 acres; Delnadamph Estate, 7000 acres)
  • Land held via the two ‘Royal Duchies’ - The Duchy of Lancaster (owned by whoever is the reigning sovereign, currently the Queen) and the Duchy of Cornwall (owned by whoever is the Prince of Wales, currently Prince Charles). While privately owned by the Royals, these perplexing and ancient entities have a series of legal strings attached, which mean the Queen and Prince do not have absolute freedom to do as they will with these lands. For example, the Duchy of Lancaster is “an inalienable asset of the Crown, held in trust for future sovereigns”. This basically means the Queen cannot sell off parts of the estate for a quick buck. These duchies are essentially property management and investment companies, whose primary role is to provide income to their owners (and they are very good at this, which will be covered below). The Duchy of Lancaster consists of 45,550 acres, including some ultra-prime real estate in central London. The Duchy of Cornwall is much larger, consisting of 135,000 acres of land plus another 5000 acres of foreshore
  • The Royal Family retains a significant ‘interest’ in the Crown Estate. Oddly, though called the Crown Estate, this body represents the most independent of the land holdings linked to the Queen. This entity is a £14.1 billion UK real estate business with a portfolio “unlike any other”. This portfolio includes prime London real estate (it owns the building in which the Apple Store is located), lots of rural land, about half the UK’s coastline and all the surrounding seabed. This entity used to be privately owned by the monarchy in the same sense as Sandringham or Balmoral, but was surrendered to Parliament by King George III in 1760 to help cover the money he was required to pay to the British state. Currently, the Royal Family does not officially have input into management decisions. The income from the Crown Estate is split between the British state and the ‘Sovereign Grant’, which is meant to defray some of the costs associated with the Queen’s official duties as Head of State. The size of the Sovereign Grant can be changed; from 2011 to 2017, it was 15% of the Crown Estate’s profits; from 2017 onwards this has increased to 25%). Profits from the Crown Estate are approximately £344 million a year, meaning the Sovereign Grant totalled £86 million in 2020/21. The Crown Estate is so large that even the entity’s management does not know how exactly much land it owns. Following a Freedom of Information request in December 2017, the estate reported that the available data suggest it owns approximately 615,000 acres. Much of this will be seabed, foreshore or river; Business Insider estimates 263,000 acres is farmland.

So, in total the Royal Family directly owns 250,000 acres (via its private estates and the two Royal Duchies). If the whole of the UK was divvied up in this manner, it would be owned by just 250 people. The Royals also enjoy a significant link to a further 615,000 acres via the Crown Estate.

Land remains a valuable asset. Unsurprisingly, their vast land holdings provide the Royal Family with a vast income. The Queen is entitled to all the profits from the Duchy of Lancaster, which provided her with £20 million in 2018 alone. The same arrangement exists for Prince Charles regarding the Duchy of Cornwall; he earns approximately £20 million a year from this. In 2018/19, it was valued at over £1 billion, technically making Prince Charles a billionaire. Unfortunately, we have no idea how much the Royal Family makes from its large private estates at Sandringham and Balmoral.

The Royal Family are also environmental activists. The Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge in particular talk a commendably good talk on the environment. Were it not for Charles’ early embrace of environmental causes, the state of the planet might have stayed a fringe concern in the UK for even longer.

And it’s not just talk: Prince Charles started farming organically at Home Farm near his Highgrove residence in 1985, long before it became more mainstream. Having recently taken over the management reins at Sandringham estate, he has converted 30% (~6000 acres) to organic farming. Prince William, meanwhile, recently launched the ‘Earthshot’ prize with David Attenborough, which will see £50m awarded over the next decade to projects for restoring nature and tackling the climate crisis.

But, in various other ways, and despite their considerable wealth, the words have not been matched by action. The Prince’s Duchy of Cornwall estates, for example, cover 130,000 acres – yet just 6% of their total area is wooded. Prince Charles has planted plenty of trees in his time, but his estate’s woodland cover still lags behind even the paltry English national average (10%). Recent research suggests just 12% of Sandringham Estate has been put aside for Britain’s critical ‘priority habitats’.

Meanwhile, the Balmoral Estate website states that “Deer stalking, grouse shooting, forestry and farming are the main land uses”. Conserving the estate’s natural heritage is demoted to a footnote. The 7000 acre Denaldamph Estate, just north of Balmoral, is described as a ‘grouse moor’ – i.e., an estate where shooting grouse takes precedence over restoring nature.

In other words, despite their vast wealth and income, and their public personas as environmental activists, the Royal Family are continuing to put money ahead of nature on the land they directly own.

This business-as-usual approach to land is unacceptable. Today, Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and is ranked 189th in the world for biodiversity. 40% of our species have declined since the 1970s, and 30% of our birds are threatened with extinction. It would seem the situation is dire and unrecoverable, yet the solution is extraordinarily simple – the land will regrow, repair and rewild – all we have to do is let it. With a few small changes to land management that can be accomplished very easily, we would soon see the regrowth of lush, rich habitats – temperate rainforest, grasslands, deep woodland, wetlands – providing a home for wildlife to flourish within once more.

Where there’s a will, nature will find a way.

Write to the Royals

Write to the Queen

c/o
The Private Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen
Buckingham Palace
London

SW1A 1AA

Write to Prince Charles

The Private Secretary to His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, KG, KT, GCB, OM
The Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, KG, KT
Clarence House
London

SW1A 1BA
See contact options for the Crown Estate
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