Spains Hall Estate: Archie Ruggles-Brise on natural flood management

9 January 2024

Landowner and partner of Spains Hall Estate, Archie Ruggles-Brise set out to explore how natural flood management (NFM) could help deliver flood risk reduction, drought resilience, cleaner water, and biodiversity benefits locally.

In 2019, Archie led a project with the Environment Agency to reintroduce a mixed pair of Eurasian beavers to Spains Hall Estate in Essex. It would be the first time that beavers would live on Spains Hall Estate, and in East Anglia, for 400 years.

This would also be the first project of its kind in East Anglia, jointly supported by a unique public and private partnership including Anglian Water, the Environment Agency, the Anglian Eastern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC), Essex County Council, and Essex and Suffolk Water.

Now, almost five years on, the beavers have transformed the woodland enclosures into a complex mosaic of wetlands, alive with water shrews, kingfishers, Pipistrelle and Barbastelle bats – and of course, a multigenerational family of beavers.

We talk to Archie to discuss the background behind the project, the supporting 'leaky dam' approach, project funding, costings, and the wider impact on the estate and local community.

The shape and role of water

Water, the world’s most precious and undervalued resource, is a vital ally in the fight against climate change.  

In October 2023, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s October 2023 report The High Cost of Cheap Water estimated that the annual economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems were worth US$58 trillion – equivalent to around 60% of the world’s GDP. 

Yet, since 1970, the earth has lost a third of its wetlands and seen an average 83% decline in its freshwater wildlife. As climate change exacerbates water shortages and food insecurity, the risk of flooding and drought is also on the rise.  

Additionally, the UK Government’s Environment Agency faces a growing challenge: how to meet increased water demands while water supplies are running out. Water Resources East projects a daily increase in water demand of 300 million litres a day by 2050, while a concurrent daily decrease in supply of 500 million litres. 

This creates a daily deficit of 800 million litres. In other words, enough water to fill over 320 Olympic pools of water. Just one day in this shortfall would see the UK lacking enough water to roughly cover an area the size of the Vatican City. 

For landowner and Chartered Water and Environment Manager, Archie Ruggles-Brise, improving water regulation alongside flood risk reduction and biodiversity uplift was a key priority.

Finchingfield Village flooding
Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography

Q: Why did you choose a nature-based approach to flood management?

Archie Ruggles-Brise (ARB): Spains Hall Estate has always been intimately tied to the land. Over time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the traditional methods of water management were failing us. Historic land management and drainage practices had likely exacerbated the risk of downstream flooding and drought to our local village of Finchingfield. With the Finchingfield Brook running right through the middle of it, heavy rain and flooding can sometimes split the village in two. 

Rather than use ‘hard’ engineering methods involving diggers and concrete to mitigate the risk, we were interested in applying a more nuanced, multi-benefit approach: something that would reduce flood risk, improve local biodiversity, and help us better understand and strengthen the case for Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES).

While we explored what options were available, the idea of reintroducing beavers came about. Beavers are nature’s oldest water engineers. When they create dams, they slow the flow and hold up water to reduce the risk of flooding downstream. 

Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography

Q: Tell us more about the project. How did you first assess the land's potential and design the programme?

ARB: We started with a boots-on-the-ground investigation to track where water was accumulating on the estate and its flow paths, supporting this where relevant with open-access water models. This helped us identify the areas where intervention would make the most possible impact.

Then in 2019, we created a four-hectare woodland enclosure around one strand of the Finchingfield Brook, and introduced a pair of beavers from a conservation specialist in Devon.

This beaver dam was complemented by a man-made natural flood management on a second strand of the brook, using a 'leaky dam' approach. 

'Leaky dams' essentially involve securing tree branches or trunks across a watercourse to help slow the water flow after heavy rain, and help create wetland that will release water in drier periods. With timber sourced from the estate, these structures are fairly simple and cost-effective to put together. While the impact on immediate storage is modest, they are primarily designed to reconnect the floodplain and increase water storage during storms.

We also introduced field edge runoff attenuation, using features like swales, ponds, and bunds, to filter the runoff from fields, and thereby improve water quality and support aquatic life. Typically, that runoff would have carried pollutants from agricultural processes into nearby ditches, while now it has time to infiltrate into the soil. 

To monitor the impact of all three, we worked closely with King's College London and the Environment Agency to station equipment and other sensors around the leaky dams and beaver enclosure. The woodland enclosures double as natural research spaces to study and report on the connections between wildlife, water management, and agriculture. 

Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography 
Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography

Q: How did you secure funding for the project?

ARB: We were in a unique position at Spains Hall Estate, as this was the first project of its kind and had limited evidence to say that it would work. I wanted others to support me on a no-regrets basis. I knew that if it went wrong, it would be my fault! 

We ultimately secured a mix of capital grants from environmental agencies, water companies, and local government bodies who believed in the project. For some, this would be the first time they had supported a landowner directly rather than going through a third-party agency.

We then allocated some of the estate's private investments to supplement the project, in recognition of the long-term economic and social benefits to the estate.

Q: What did the project costings look like?

ARB: Our primary investment was in infrastructure, as you can see below. The leaky dams were cost-effective as they used timber sourced from the estate, and the beavers themselves were also fairly low-cost.

Project costings of Leaky Dams, Field Edge NFM and Beaver Enclosures. Designed in collaboration with King's College London.

Q: What has been the impact of the integrated solution so far? 

ARB: Since 2019, the beavers have transformed the once barren, dry woodland enclosures into a rich wetland habitat, building dams from locally felled trees, sticks, stones, and mud. They've also had three sets of kits! As a result of the success, in 2023, we released another four Eurasian beavers into two brand new 50-acre enclosures. The two new enclosures along the brook measure 1.9km long and cover 100 acres – 10 times the size of the original enclosure.

Together with the leaky dams, you can see with drone footage post Storm Henk that the water is being forced out onto the floodplain earlier, and for longer, than before. We can see that this is not only mitigating the flood risk for downstream communities, but also supporting groundwater replenishment, and enhancing soil infiltration. The flood plain is now working as a flood plain!

The field edge runoff attenuation practices have also improved water quality by stopping pollutants from agricultural runoff before they have a chance to reach water bodies. This has benefited local aquatic ecosystems, which are particularly vulnerable to pollution. 

Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography
Source: Archie Ruggles-Brise estate photography

Q: Looking ahead, what’s in store for the future of NFM at Spains Hall? 

ARB: The future is full of exploring more integrated NFM strategies – both in-field and in-ditches. We’re currently exploring rainwater harvesting techniques, repurposing our drainage ditches to store water, and developing shared valuation methods that reflect the true value of our water cycle involvement. Our focus really is on how we boost climate resilience, deliver cleaner more plentiful water, and safeguard these ecosystems for the future. 

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to other landowners looking into NFM methods for their estate?

ARB: Thoroughly research what grants and funding are available to you as a landowner, and understand what you may be eligible for. Many organisations are actively looking for high-quality initiatives that align with their sustainability goals and demonstrate wider benefits, particularly if they are connected to biodiversity uplift, water supply, and physical climate risk resilience.

We were able to expand this NFM programme thanks to long-term partnerships with government agencies, conservationists, experts, other estates, and more. Such partnerships are not only incredibly valuable in the funding they can offer, but also the additional knowledge and expertise they provide in the long and short-term.

Interview based on a Series of Lunch and Learns by Archie Ruggles-Brise between November and December 2023. Find out more about Spains Hall Estate here.

For more information: 

[i] Spains Hall Estate. (n.d.). NFM & Beavers. Available at: (Accessed: 7 November 2023). 

[ii] The Flood Hub. (n.d.). Natural Flood Management. Available at: (Accessed: 7 November 2023). 

[iii] World Wildlife Fund. (2023). WWF Freshwater Report. Available at: (Accessed: 7 November 2023). 

[iiii] Water Resources East. (n.d.). Water Resources East’s First Regional Water Resources Plan is Launched. Available at: (Accessed: 7 November 2023). 

Zulu Ecosystems: Helping you restore nature at scale

At Zulu Ecosystems, we partner with landowners, corporates, local authorities and communities to responsibly regenerate natural ecosystems at scale. 

Combining the latest science, econometric models and land data, with in-house land management and multi-disciplinary expertise, we support landowners to evaluate, finance and deliver ecosystem regeneration projects at the landscape or estate level.

Contact us

To learn more about Spains Hall Estate and its integrated approach to natural flood management, find out more here.

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Written by
Alex Robinson
Partner at Moor Wood Farm, Commercial Director at Zulu Ecosystems
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