Panshangar Festival of Wildlife

PUBLISHED: 22:36 22 July 2016 | UPDATED: 22:36 22 July 2016

Panshanger Park, once the playground of aristocracy, now open to the public (Photo: Kevin Lines)

Panshanger Park, once the playground of aristocracy, now open to the public (Photo: Kevin Lines)


Jennifer Gilbert, Panshanger Park people and wildlife officer, looks at the rich heritage and habitats of one of Herts’ most beautiful parks ahead of a Festival of Wildlife there in July

The remains of the orangery, built in 1856 (photo: HMWT)The remains of the orangery, built in 1856 (photo: HMWT)

Many of Hertfordshire’s natural spaces have a rich history and fantastically diverse habitats for our wild residents and Panshanger Park near Hertford is a brilliant example of this.

Panshanger House was built between 1806 and 1811 following a visit by Humphry Repton to the park in 1799. As a renowned landscape designer and successor to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Repton was commissioned by the 5th Earl Cowper to come up with ideas to improve the landscape of the park. Although Repton suggested several locations for the house, Earl Cowper decided to build it at the top of the valley where a smaller house already stood.

The house was built in Gothic style, contained over 100 rooms and housed a very impressive art collection. Several formal gardens and pleasure grounds were laid out and in 1856 an orangery was built to the west of the house. Twenty years later a conservator – and showing that deluxe games rooms are nothing new – an indoor skittle alley was also added.

The Cowper family who owned the Panshanger estate were wealthy and well-connected and Panshanger House welcomed many important visitors over the years. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed at the house in 1841 and Winston Churchill visited on several occasions. Panshanger also became an important meeting place for many politicians and the romantic and pleasure-seeking social group of Victorian and Edwardian artists and intellectuals known as the Souls.

Whitethroat perches on a hawthorne tree in the park (Tim Hill)Whitethroat perches on a hawthorne tree in the park (Tim Hill)

The last owner of the house, Lady Desborough, was a prominent member of the Souls. She inherited the house in 1913 following the death of her uncle, the 7th Earl Cowper. She had three sons, but tragically two died in the First World War and the other in a car crash leaving no heirs to take on the estate. Following Lady Desborough’s death in 1952, no further use could be found for the house and it was demolished in 1954 and the contents sold. Although Panshanger House no longer exists, the orangery survives, as does the lake known as the Broadwater – still making a magnificent view from where the house once stood.

Industrial heritage

Building material and construction solutions company Tarmac has owned Panshanger Park since the 1980s and since the 1990s has carried out mineral extraction in the park. Now that extraction is nearing its end, the company is working with local stakeholders, including the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, to deliver a new management plan for the park. Much of the site has now been restored to a country park and nature reserve, creating the lakes and surrounding habitat that visitors are able to enjoy today. Further areas will be opened up in phases as the remaining extraction on site comes to an end.

Haven for wildlife

The park is a fantastic place to spot wildlife due to its mosaic of valuable habitats including woodlands, wetlands, grasslands and reedbeds. During spring and summer, visitors are able to see a multitude of wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and birds that bring the park to life in a riot of noise and colour.

Birdwatchers head to the park year-round to spot the impressive birds of prey such as buzzard, red kite, hobby and kestrel that Panshanger attracts. Osprey Lake, so named after the osprey that often visits during its autumn migration to Africa, supports a number of breeding and wintering birds. Other birds found in the park in summer include warblers such as whitethroat and sedge warbler, swallow and tern, while in winter a wide range of ducks migrate here. The habitat alongside the Dragonfly Trail to the east of Osprey Lake contains several ponds dug to create further habitat for dragonflies and damselflies - 18 species of which can be found in the park.

Those with their eyes on the ground can spot a multitude of insects such as grasshoppers and crickets in the grass, including the stripe-winged grasshopper. Panshanger Park is one of only two sites in the county to support this rare species. The River Mimram; one of Hertfordshire’s best chalk streams, supports a wealth of different species and if you’re lucky you may see a kingfisher flying along the waterway. Visit after sunset and you have a good chance of spotting one of a number of bat species that live, breed and forage in the park. These include common and soprano pipistrelle, Daubenton’s, noctule and serotine bats.

Jennifer Gilbert works for Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and her role is funded by Tarmac.

Go wild in Panshanger

Join Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust at Panshanger Park for a Festival of Wildlife weekend on July 30-31. The event will feature a range of guided walks, talks by experts, children’s activities, wildlife safaris and conservation work demonstrations. Find out more at

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