Naturalist and film-maker Randal Plunkett, 21st Baron of Dunsany, took an unorthodox gamble when he decided to ‘rewild’ his family’s Co Meath demesne. In the face of aggression, vandalism and threats, he’s built a thriving 750-acre nature reserve
After his father, Edward Plunkett, the 20th Baron of Dunsany, passed away 10 years ago, eldest son Randal inherited not only one of the oldest peerage titles in the country, but a venerated agricultural legacy. His ancestor, Sir Horace Plunkett, pioneer of Irish social reform, had established the rolling meadows of Dunsany Castle and Demesne, set between Trim and Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, as a centre of agronomic innovation.
While developing the successful rollout of the Irish co-op movement among a series of pastoral achievements over the turn of the 20th century, Horace preached the slogan, ‘Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living’.
Taking management of the estate and herd, Randal applied this mantra through an environmentally sustainable lens, with a desire to do better by the land. “After attempting a normal agricultural approach, I stepped back and saw a landscape bleak and exhausted from overgrazing and over-farming,” he explains. “Chemicals injected into the soil and no pause for regeneration or recovery. How does land remain healthy when the cycle of life is ignored?”
The 21st Baron of Dunsany made a radical decision. He removed all grazing animals from the property, gearing towards an overall holistic focus on crops. Pesticides were banned, fertilisers were abandoned and invasive weeds like ragwort and thistle were tackled by hand. “My mum looked at me as if I’d joined a cult.”
Steered by a passionate new advocacy for veganism, Randal — who tradition dictates should be addressed as Lord Dunsany — came upon the concept of ‘rewilding’ seven years ago, a progressive approach to conservation allowing the environment to take care of itself and return to a native natural state. Rather than an experimental litmus test in a quiet corner of the property, he sacrificed 750 acres of a highly profitable 1,700-acre pasture in an unorthodox gamble.
“I wanted to return the land to the wild, not just preserve what little natural habitat remained. 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.”
The first Irish project to be recognised by the European Rewilding Network — a large-scale joint initiative restoring natural habitat across the continent —Dunsany Nature Reserve is now a haven of regenerated native forests, grass fields, springs and streams weaving through marshlands. Since its establishment, Randal says there’s been increased sightings of rare local bird species not recorded in the area for a long time including red kites, woodpeckers, barn owls, long-eared owls, herons and sparrowhawk.
The reserve is also now home to red deer, foxes, otters, badgers, pine martens, hares and stoats. “The return of grasses and plants welcomes the return of insects and rodents, who are then followed by birds and small animals. 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.”
Two years ago, an international study involving experts from Trinity College Dublin and UCD confirmed agricultural fields with greater biodiversity are better protected from harmful insects, promote pollination and produce higher yields. And in a nomination for the 2021 Farm for Nature Awards, the Irish Wildlife Trust acknowledged biodiversity from the Dunsany rewilding has had a positive impact on the crop yields on Randal’s land dedicated to tillage — managed by tenants growing hemp, beans, rapeseed and wheat — as well as neighbouring tillage farms.
It’s a 21st century take on Sir Horace Plunkett’s slogan ‘Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living’. “Horace built schools, started the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and was involved in setting up the Irish Country Women’s Association. He tried to uplift the people. We’ve been a family who have done that throughout the ages in different ways. Now the environment is a problem and in a small way, I can do something about it. Not everybody has that power.”
Randal speaks in commanding, educated phrases. An American accent, courtesy of an early New York upbringing, interweaves with the contrasting tendrils of a placeless Irish brogue. It’s not quite as confronting as the Michael Flatley transatlantic hybrid but there’s similar effect. Broad shoulders, dashing jaw structure and an elevated stare comfortably characterise his blue-blooded stature as Lord Dunsany, custodian of the 12th century Gothic fortress, 40 minutes outside Dublin.
Commissioned by Hugh de Lacy, Lord of Meath and built by Geoffrey de Cusack, the Plunkett dynasty came to inherit Dunsany Castle during the 15th century, following the marriage of Sir Christopher Plunkett to Lady Joan de Cusack.
Said to be one of the oldest-surviving, continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland, Randal was 28 when he became overseer of the estate after his father’s passing in 2011 — a duty he resisted for many years. “This is something I was trained to do from birth but I rejected it for a long time,” says Randal, who lost his mother, Lady Dunsany, Maria-Alice De Marsillac Plunkett, earlier this year.
“I wanted to have a life and choose my decisions but the sense of duty eventually kicked in. I began to appreciate the weight of this legacy. I was born into privilege and with privilege, often comes sacrifice. There’s a responsibility we must fulfil. I can’t pinpoint when I accepted it, I just did. I’m a caretaker of Dunsany until I pass and as a custodian, we have duties and responsibility. And one of those responsibilities is to have children. There has to be always one child who has to step up.”
Is the pressure to produce an heir or heiress a concern? He pauses, before cautiously responding, “Well, I just had a child,” revealing his daughter’s arrival in May, while keeping her name and her mother’s identity under wraps. “She will be the next custodian of Dunsany and have the training I did and learn about the significance that comes with being born into the oldest family still associated with one place in Ireland.”
While his newborn daughter is currently in line to inherit the castle and demesne, she will not inherit her father’s title. Even today, medieval tradition trumps gender parity. “I think it’s bullshit but this is historical stuff and the title usually goes to the first son. At this point, I have no intention of having any more children. I have one and for me, she will be the next custodian of this place.”
Despite deserting his independence for aristocratic obligation, Randal continues to toil on his lifelong passion for filmmaking, with his first feature-length movie, The Green Sea, released this month. Filmed primarily on the rugged surrounds of Dunsany, the supernatural drama examines an American writer (Katharine Isabelle) and her struggle to source inspiration for a follow-up novel while living in isolation in rural Ireland.
Haunted by visions of the past, she questions what’s real with the arrival of a mysterious stranger while grappling with unfamiliar, hostile surrounds. A labour of love, Randal admits there’s semi-autobiographical layering to the story.
“She’s solitary and I know what that’s like. It deals with the past, that’s what I live with at Dunsany. My family’s past is literally on the walls. Her character is someone trying to emulate early success, that’s what happened to me in my film career which I thought would explode after my last film. And she’s a foreigner in a foreign land and since I’ve first moved here, there’s always been this cultural distance.”
Writing the chilling tale while embarking on the rewilding project, Randal agrees hostilities encountered from critics of the reserve — something he still deals with — were echoed throughout the film and its tones of cultural suspicion. “I mirrored that in the film because yes, I still get a lot of pushback from a very distinct group of people and diplomacy doesn’t work with them. When you stand up for something against the status quo and put yourself in this position, there can be conflict.”
It’s a curiously mild description of the aggression, vandalism and threats of violence he says he regularly faces from poachers and hunters, angry with the ring of protection around native wildlife. “I can’t park my car on the side of the road or my tyres will get slashed. I roll up against poachers holding guns pointed in my face. I’ve had one fellow threaten to slash my face open. I’m even expecting a dead fox to be mounted on my gate any day now,” he says with an air of pride. “There have been so many death threats, so many, but I will never stop.”
Over the last year, Randal has worked with WFI Emergency Wildlife Hospital at nearby Garlow Cross, in rehabilitating and rehoming injured animals, including hedgehogs, foxes and badgers, on the reserve. There’s also plans to install up to 200 hives for declining native Irish black bees with the Irish Bee Conservation Project, along with hopes to reintroduce the red squirrel. “It’s one of the few counties which doesn’t have the red squirrel. No corridors of habitat for them to emigrate back from places like Cavan. But I’ll have to go past National Parks and Wildlife before anything happens.”
The aristocratic naturalist is also at pains to add that these significant strides in biodiversity regeneration are all on his own dime which proves an immense strain, despite the perceived wealth of the Dunsany pile. “There’s this belief we’re oozing cash but truth is, we lose a significant amount of money every year from the rewilding and have had no support. Seven years and the amount of species return we’ve had, not to mention acting as a carbon sink. I’m probably contributing as a massive carbon sink for the entire county of Meath.”
In an Irish Times interview this January, Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for Heritage, which includes the area of biodiversity, said: “We need to reward farmers as custodians [of the environment], and farmland as carbon sinks and for biodiversity enhancement.” Two months later, the former director of Friends of the Earth Ireland announced €1.35m for Local Authority biodiversity projects to support the implementation of the National Biodiversity Action Plan — funding Dunsany Nature Reserve is ineligible for. (Although reports indicate the castle structure itself was awarded over €14,000 by Minister Noonan’s funding for built heritage projects last year.)
“Despite my contribution to local biodiversity, it shows you flaws in the overall policy. I’ve had no visits from the Green government. This is the biggest rewilding project in Ireland but Eamon Ryan seems to be preoccupied with cycle tracks and cutting down trees in Dublin. I appreciate the Government has had their hands full with Covid-19 but I would’ve expected a knock on the door from the leader of the Green Party at this point. Maybe that will happen closer to election time.”
It’s mid-July in Dunsany Nature Reserve. Pine martens skulk among the tangled branches while, at night, badgers patrol between a thick and glossy understory. In some parts, meadow grasses stand taller than people, swaying to the jumbled chorus of birdsong.
Recently, Randal was gifted a potted oak sapling, grown from an acorn by a local Brownies group. He says this little plant will be placed in ground overlooking the castle, so in time, when the kids visit as adults, they will see it as a tree. “I walk around today and see large trees planted by someone who never got to see them grow. And in turn, I’m planting trees today that I will never see grow.
“But these trees are not for me, these trees are for the young people around us. It’s the next generation who are going to make the change. Let’s set the stage for them.”
‘The Green Sea’ is available now on Prime Video and digital platforms. Instagram @dunsanynaturereserve