THE VICAR of Wangford came to a halt in the middle of the kitchen floor. The Earl of Stradbroke, upon whom he was calling for an afternoon mug of tea, had just referred to him as 'an old bastard'. It was hard to judge from the Rev Miles Copley's wavering smile whether he was aware that to an Australian the word bastard has no derogatory ancestral connotations but is merely a term of joshing endearment.

The earl wanted to know if the 'vic' wouldn't mind baptising eight of his sixteen children - all in one go. At this Mr Copley went into a rapid chin-stroking routine and stared down at the floor. 'I should no doubt have to refill the font,' he remarked, eyes darting from child to child. He reached for the door handle, turned and looked over his glasses, as if from pulpit to congregation, and added: 'Always a pleasure, Keith.' And he was gone.

Thirty years ago Keith Rous emigrated to Australia to escape his aristocratic family and a long- running feud between his father and his uncle. But in 1983 he suddenly and reluctantly found himself the sixth earl and owner of the family's 3,500-acre estate at Henham in Suffolk.

As a boy, Keith had no taste for education but did show a bent for making money. His mother despaired when he was kicked out of Harrow for running a betting scam. Aged 20 and penniless, he went to Australia and set about making a fortune.

After selling encyclopaedias, running a debt-collection service and heading a detective agency, Keith became an Australian citizen, taking on those straightforward characteristics that are the antitheses of the British landed gentry. He made a fortune in land speculation, ending up as owner of a sheep farm in Victoria.

Last month he drove me around his Suffolk acres in a yellow Rolls- Royce painted with garish slogans advertising the Henham estate and, as well as his coat of arms, a picture of a kangaroo sitting on a lavatory.

The sixth earl is determined to bring about changes in a world where the landed gentry is increasingly being forced by society and economic necessity to dilute its traditional hold on rural communities and co-operate in commercial ventures. There is a sense of regeneration and hope in the air around the Henham estate.

The yellow Roller came to rest at the edge of an enormous lake. Pushing back his bush hat, the earl stuck his boot on the bumper and admired his proudest achievement.

'They said I was mad. They said it couldn't be done, that the lake would drain straight back into the sea, but there it bloody well is. I've moved half a million tons of sand to create 15 acres of water.'

He reflected on his seven-year fight with the authorities in order to fulfil a prediction by Humphry Repton, the 18th-century garden architect, that a future earl would, when the woodlands were mature, create just such a lake. By locating 180 underground streams, and using capillary action and a sluice, he has created a controlled supply of water.

'The trouble is, there's no lateral thinking here. Now I have the possibility for irrigation, I can water my stock; I could generate power from the drainage. It's the cleanest water in East Anglia - we can put fish in; the local people, and even the authorities, now love it because it's aesthetically pleasing. In 10 years' time the National Rivers Authority will be copying me. I'm investing in something very practical for the future.'

Keith Rous has a businesslike approach to the regeneration of the estate. Its 50 houses are being restored and filled with tenants. A few acres have been franchised to a local businessman to create the biggest clay-pigeon shoot in the country. A pit containing 30 million tons of gravel is awaiting a revival in the building industry. With other franchising schemes in the pipeline, employment on the estate is set to rise from 50 to 150.

The Henham estate is virtually self-sufficient in building and maintenance materials, trees are being planted, the policy is green - no artifical fertiliser allowed - and the bulk of the estate is turned over to sheep.

The earl's intention is to complete Repton's vision for the estate, which include a large walled garden and a series of coppices. But one of the peculiarities of Henham is that it now has no ancestral home - the fourth earl, Keith Rous's uncle, knocked down the 18th-century seat in 1953, apparently because of unhappy childhood memories. Modernistic plans for a new house have been too adventurous for local planners, so in a blaze of publicity the present earl first set up home under canvas, then in a two- bedroom cottage - with an open- air bush bath and lavatory.

The original farm buildings are to be restored, a heritage centre created, and leisure activities, such as a Grand Henham Show, are being encouraged - but not to the subordination of agriculture: diversity is the key. Now there are plans to encourage the workforce through a profit-sharing scheme

'My beautiful relatives, what a crew,' Keith chuckled, ruffling the hair of one of his father's five 'love children', sired through a dalliance with a teenage maid - an unexpected part of the inheritance. 'Anyhow, my dad did something good for me - he never gave me any money. I had to stand on my own two feet. He himself, mind you, was hopeless in business.'

The condition of the estate at the time he inherited it became the focus of an expensive and bitter family row. In a well-publicised court case, the new earl was awarded pounds 40,000 in a libel action against a relative - the son-in-law of the fourth earl - who called him a 'malicious liar' following a newspaper story in which Keith had criticised the neglect of the Henham estate, saying that it was 'very down-at-heel, after decades of mismanagement'. A surveyor's report confirmed that much of the estate property was in poor condition.

During the eight-day trial, the Australian earl made his mark with the tabloid press by sporting a bush hat and peppering the proceedings with 'fair dinkum' and other such phrases.

This colourful behaviour does not endear him to everyone. Hubert Button, who is now retired but used to work on the estate as a herdsman, may be the only person now living who can remember Henham in its 7,000-acre entirety, before various bits were sold off. His is one of a few older dissenting voices: 'I worked for three earls, under which the estate made a profit, was run very well, and at one time employed 150 men. The fourth earl kept things up, I was satisfied with my lot. I don't see any so-called improvements today myself. Just the opposite - a lot of the land is set aside, and as for all these new schemes, we haven't seen anything really substantial. I think they're all just so much hot air.'

But Phillip Smith, the estate manager brought in by Keith Rous, defends his employer's record. 'He has rescued this estate from decline - now we all have a future,' he says. 'There are few die-hard establishment folk who remain a little anti-change. Let's put it this way, they would perhaps prefer less of a high profile for the area, publicity-wise.

'But Keith has been a breath of fresh air, and once people meet him they are usually won over. He's a hyperactive man filled with ideas. I act as a sort of cushion to the outside world and a voice of modification to anything that seems over the top.'

The frustrations of trying to reinvent an aristocratic home have clearly told on Rosie, the Countess of Stradbroke - the earl's second wife. She rolled her eyes at the mention of feuding relatives and difficulties with the planning authorities, not to mention the daily needs of anything up to 16 children.

The family has returned to its farm in Victoria for some Australian summer sun and the freedom of the outback. Since inheriting the title and estate nine years ago, the sixth earl has commuted regularly between Suffolk and Victoria, communicating by fax and telephone between two continents, and he will continue to do so to ensure that his plans for Henham are carried out.

His message for the estate-owning aristocracy is simple: 'There's a motivating job to be done. Take a cut in pay, reinvest in the land, roll up your sleeves, get out there and lead by example.'

Meanwhile, the Rev Miles Copley suspects that most people in the parishes of Henham and Wangford have come to terms with their earl. 'I've been here 27 years, and I still don't know what people think of me. The earl has a very different style to his forebears, but my mind is open and Keith has always been very helpful indeed to local charities, and is opening up the estate to disabled visitors.

'I believe his plans for Henham are a force for good. As for the colourful language - good heavens, no, I'm not offended. I may use a few expletives myself on occasions. I think it rather helps things along.'

(Photographs omitted)