Ambitious English rewilding project aims to give 20% of land ‘back to nature’

  • Rewilding projects are multiplying in the U.K. in response to a growing awareness of the country’s serious loss of biodiversity. Britain ranked 189th out of 218 countries in the 2016 “State of Nature” report for the quality of its biodiversity and its natural condition.
  • One of the most innovative projects now underway may be WildEast, which ambitiously hopes to rewild an area more than three times the size of New York City, creating interconnecting wild corridors across East Anglia, the country’s most intensely farmed region.
  • The plan originated with three large estate owners, who, in addition to the commitment of their own lands, have already registered 1,000 “pledgees” for the project. However, some local residents, especially farmers, have complained that there is not enough consultation by WildEast.
  • Even so, many East Anglia residents welcome the explosion in wildlife happening on the newly rewilded areas. WildEast’s long-term goal is to rewild 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) by 2070.

“Folklore has it that the last great bustard in the U.K. was shot here, where we are standing, in 1832,” says Olly Birkbeck, as he surveys Massingham Heath, a large tract of open land in eastern England.

“They’re almost like a small ostrich — crested and rather peculiar looking, flightless. They make an extraordinary clucking noise and they’re just the most gorgeous things you’ve ever seen. They’re rather cumbersome-looking creatures and they used to stalk around here in the hundreds in the old days. I think they were used to decorate ladies’ hats quite a lot as well.

“The next project, potentially, is to bring them back.”

This may not be wishful thinking. It was clear to the Mongabay reporting team standing with Birkbeck on the heath in mid-September that far-reaching change is underway. As afternoon sunlight penetrated billowing clouds, tall grasses swayed in a gentle breeze.

Birkbeck was taken aback by what happened on the heath last spring, change that he attributes to his rewilding project. “Whoosh! It all came to life … this extraordinary sort of alchemy happened,” he recalls. Flowers bloomed in an explosion of color. “Skylarks, stone curlews and turtle doves, all desperately endangered, are proliferating!”

The great bustard (Otis tarda). It became locally extinct in the mid-19th century when the bird was overhunted, partly to provide feathers for ladies’ hats. It was recently reintroduced onto Salisbury Plain, a move that Olly Birkbeck hopes to copy in Massingham Marshes. Image by Andrej Chudý via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Nature an unforeseen victim of the War

Massingham Heath is part of the 1,000-hectare (2,500-acre) Little Massingham Estate, bought by the Birkbeck family in the 1800s and somewhat unexpectedly passed down to Olly Birkbeck by his aunt in 2016.

Taking on the estate, Birkbeck also inherited a broken model of farming established during the Second World War, when, amid a harsh regime of food rationing, the Ministry of Agriculture’s “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged people to turn open English land into vegetable patches.

About half of the heath, “once a lovely wilderness,” was dug up to plant arable crops and sugar beets to help feed the nation. Following the war, matters only deteriorated.

“Then, of course, along comes the double-headed monster of the horrible proliferation of agricultural chemicals, and then [government agricultural] subsidies, which incentivized farmers not to look after nature, but … to sweep it aside,” Birkbeck says. Farmers were paid for every acre farmed, which drove them to bring marginal lands once left to nature into production.

Children from Great Massingham primary school in the vegetable garden they’ve created. Image by Sue Branford for Mongabay.

“So, not only did we not return [Massingham] to heathland, but we also continued to intensively farm it by committing ‘nuclear Armageddon’ on it. And of course, in those days, it was considered a triumph to subjugate the wild land rather than to protect it.”

As the new owner and land manager, Birkbeck realized that up to three-quarters of crops grown on his estate were going to feed not people but livestock, especially beef cattle, “because we think that it’s our God-given right to eat 25p [34 cent] burgers three times a day.”

Time for a rethink, Birkbeck concluded. In partnership with Natural England, the agency that advises the government on England’s natural environment, he decided to try to restore the heath. In 2019, he fenced it off, called on friends to collect native seeds from other heaths and sowed them on his land. He also began reintroducing animals that had traditionally lived there over the centuries, including wild ponies, cows, goats and pigs.

Olly Birkbeck on Massingham Heath, which he is rewilding. Image by Sue Branford for Mongabay.

WildEast: A plan to remake the countryside

In 2020, Birkbeck joined with fellow farming aristocrats Hugh Crossley (the fourth Baron Somerleyton, commonly referred to as Lord Somerleyton), and ­­­­­­Argus Hardy (son of the fifth Earl of Cranbrook), to create the WildEast rewilding project.

Unlike the U.K.’s best-known rewilding experiment on the self-contained 1,400-hectare (3,500-acre) Knepp Estate in southern England, the WildEast initiative hopes to link up hundreds of smaller private and publicly owned land parcels to create contiguous wild corridors. The hope is that they will ultimately cover 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of East Anglia — an area three times the size of New York City — by 2070.

On its website, WildEast invites everyone “across farming estates, industrial estates, housing estates, and schools, gardens, allotments and churchyards to be contributories to a great river of nature,” and set aside 20% “of whatever [they] have” to give back to nature. That 20% figure, WildEast says, has been identified by scientists as the “nature need” if the region’s biodiversity is to stage a comeback.

The task is an urgent one.

“Nature in Britain is in a really bad way,” says Richard Bunting of Rewilding Britain, an independent charity set up in 2014 to support the burgeoning number of Britons turning to rewilding in response to the climate and biodiversity crises. That includes the founders of WildEast.

The three founding members of WildEast: From left, Hugh Somerleyton, Olly Birkbeck and Argus Hardy. Image courtesy of WildEast.

Britain ranked 189th out of 218 countries in the 2016 “State of Nature” report for the quality of its biodiversity and its natural condition, Bunting points out. “Over half of our species are in decline and huge numbers are moving towards extinction … Things have been going seriously downhill over the past 80-100 years.”

Rewilding could be one solution to the problem.

“Rewilding is large-scale nature restoration — or rather, large-scale restoration of ecosystems until the point when nature can look after itself again,” Bunting explains. “Nature’s got into such a bad place that often [human] interventions are needed,” at least in the early stages, when native and traditional species of flora and fauna need to be reintroduced, which on Birkbeck’s lands includes heathland grasses and grazing animals.

Bunting says rewilding not only brings benefits in terms of habitat restoration to counter species loss, but that “rich, natural, healthy ecosystems help soak up CO2 from the atmosphere, which is needed alongside reducing fossil fuel use” to help curb global warming. Rewilding can also mitigate the consequences of climate change by, for example, reducing flooding brought on by extreme rainfall.

Rewilding Britain wants to see 5% of the English landmass fully rewilded by 2030 (an increase from less than 1% today), with a further 25% “restored to nature” by that year as well. Nature restoration, Bunting explains, does not mean returning land to some idealized past state, but to a condition where biodiverse, resilient ecosystems are fostered to mitigate harmful human impacts. Rewilding of this sort includes the implementation of more nature-friendly agricultural methods such as regenerative farming, a form of agroecology.

Water buffalo on the large rewilded area of Somerleyton Estate. Water buffalo were introduced onto Somerleyton estate to act as ecosystem engineers. Image courtesy of WildEast.

A visit to the Somerleyton estate

Hugh Somerleyton, dressed in jeans, a WildEast baseball cap and T-shirt, cut a somewhat incongruous casual figure as he spoke to us before the imposing, centuries-old Somerleyton Hall, which he inherited along with his title when his father died in 2012. Regarded as one of the finest Victorian stately homes in the U.K., Somerleyton Hall boasts antique furnishings, fine paintings and — jarringly, given the nature of the baron’s project — enormous stuffed polar bears.

Barely a year on from WildEast’s founding, Somerleyton admits it’s early days for the project, but notes that it has already registered 1,000 “pledgees” — individuals who have committed to eventually set aside 20% of their land for nature.

On that September day, we were sniffed by curious Exmoor ponies introduced by Somerleyton, along with other animals. “Horses nip the grass, cows tear it, and pigs rootle,” all required to support the locale’s traditional ecosystem, Somerleyton explains.

“Where we’re particularly pleased is that there are lots of [public and private] sectors [getting involved in WildEast] that we hadn’t thought of,” he says “A good example is Greater Anglia, the railway network, which has quite a lot of land. We’re also working with EDF [the French state-owned power utility] at Sizewell [a nuclear powerplant], who have a 2,000-acre [809-hectare] estate … and others like the National Grid and National Trust.”

But it’s proving more difficult to win over the most important players: farmers. Only about 100 of the region’s approximately 2,000 farmers have so far pledged. Given that 71% of the U.K.’s land is farmed, getting them on board is critical.

“We absolutely understand that 20% is a lot. Most farmers probably are [already] giving up around 3% to an environment scheme, and maybe they’ve got somewhere between 0.5% and 1% of their farm as hedgerows,” says Somerleyton. “So, it’s another 15%, 16% or 17%. But [this takes place] over 50 years. We’re not asking for it today.”

Somerleyton says the type of incremental change needed on farms is in evidence on his own estate: “Instead of farming closer and closer to the bottom of the hedge, we’re just quietly doing exactly the reverse and allowing these hedges to grow out,” he explains.

Hugh Somerleyton standing in a rewilded field in front of Somerleyton Hall, one of the U.K.’s grandest stately homes. Image by Sue Branford for Mongabay.
Rob Raven, the manager of Somerleyton Estate, standing at the edge of a conventionally farmed field that he is rewilding by not tilling the corners. He says a small step like this one can provide an important refuge for wildlife, while costing the farmer little. Image by Sue Branford for Mongabay.

Rob Wise, East Anglia environment adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the U.K.’s largest farmers’ organization, is cautious. He told the Eastern Daily Press: “We will be keen to learn more about the WildEast initiative and how this can mesh with other farmer and landowner goals and capabilities.”

Much will depend on incentives available to farmers, which will become known when the government announces the details of its Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which will replace the EU’s climate change subsidy scheme and is intended to help the U.K. achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “The evolution of ELMS will be a great opportunity to support these ambitions,” Wise said.

But not everything should be left to the farmers; society needs to change too, says Somerleyton. “Fifty percent of what we grow goes to animals to feed our addiction to cheap meat which is low welfare, and actually not good for us … Sure, farmers can change, but actually society needs to change with us, changing its diet.”

Embracing smart agricultural practices

There’s yet another challenge to be confronted: how farmers will use the rest of their land that’s not rewilded. Somerleyton and his farm manager, Robert Raven, acknowledge the potential contradiction between the ambition to set aside 20% of land to nature, while in some cases continuing to farm conventionally on the remaining 80%.

Raven took us to his farm where he practices “regenerative farming,” including direct drilling, a low-till technique that uses lighter machinery to place the seed directly in the residues of the previous crop, minimizing soil disturbance and compaction — a method that also reduces loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere. In addition, he sows companion plants alongside the main crop to maximize soil health and biodiversity, and minimize the need for chemical inputs.

Proponents of regenerative farming believe it may help curb the impacts of climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and an improved water cycle.

Insects, birds and butterflies abound in Raven’s fields, which are edged by a broad ribbon of millet, buckwheat and tall grasses that provide seeds for birds over winter. He says the same technique is now being implemented on the huge Somerleyton estate.

Looking west over the rewilded Massingham Heath. Image by Rebecca Branford for Mongabay.

Local discontent

But, as often happens with rewilding projects, WildEast is facing growing pains, particularly criticism from local residents.

Some tenant farmers, none of whom wanted us to publish their names, are skeptical of Somerleyton’s commitment to nature restoration. One told us that that the estate was “being sprayed within an inch of its life,” though he didn’t say what was being sprayed.

Another, a beekeeper, said he “dreaded to see the sprayer out” on Somerleyton’s farm. “If that’s put on in the heat of the day, that mist, no matter what they’re spraying, it is in the air and, if my bees fly through it, that’s it for them,” he told Mongabay. “You see, [the bees] just can’t tolerate any chemical whatsoever, and you’ll find a heap of [dead] bees at the front of the hive. In fact, the last two months I lost four hives.”

Raven denies these claims, saying the Somerleyton estate is working to minimize chemical inputs, and that “we don’t use any sprays that are likely to affect bees on any crops that are likely to have bees in them, or at a time of year when bees are likely to be there.” He dismissed the complaints as “village gossip.”

Another tenant farmer told Mongabay that Somerleyton had tried to raise water levels in Somerleyton Marshes as part of a plan supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). But the tenant grazes cattle there and had been offered no equivalent land, resulting in a farcical tussle, he said, as he pulled out the dams to prevent the flooding, while Somerleyton’s employees repeatedly reinstated them.

These complaints may reflect deep-seated reluctance to accept change from tenant farmers who have worked the land in the same way for many decades. The concerns may also tap into decades-old tensions between the estate owner and his tenants.

But their criticisms hit a nerve with Somerleyton.

Hugh Somerleyton on part of his estate that has been rewilded. Image by Sue Branford for Mongabay.

When we put the question to him, he dismissed the complaints angrily as “fag ends picked up in the gutter” and “the uneducated words of someone who doesn’t like me and the estate.” Of the dispute over flooding the marshes, he said “Somerleyton marshes are mine to flood or not flood.”

This response may reflect a deeper divide. WildEast claims to be a “people-powered” project that aims to “democratize nature by supporting people in East Anglia to take action within their own communities,” and we did find an enthusiastic reception for it at the school, community and railway line we visited where rewilding is being implemented. But there seem to be few formal mechanisms for ensuring that local people, especially farmers, are given the right for their concerns to be heard and addressed.

In fact, most locals we spoke with said they knew nothing about the rewilding of Somerleyton Estate. Others said they resented the decision, taken without consultation, to ban public access to Fritton Lake, a large water body next to the rewilding project on Somerleyton Estate, used for decades by the public for leisure activities, but now only accessible to a wealthy elite willing to pay top prices for membership or to rent luxury houses.

These tensions, which seem to be affecting Somerleyton Estate more than the rest of WildEast, may say something about the U.K.’s deeply entrenched class system; Hugh Somerleyton comes from an aristocratic family that has held undisputed authority over the land for centuries and is not used to having its decisions challenged.

Yet, say rewilding advocates, the involvement of the local community is key. “It is a huge problem if you don’t take people with you,” Rewilding Britain’s Richard Bunting says. “Communities are a major stakeholder, and you want to see them in the driving seat.”

Two aerial shots show the same farm in 1946 and 2021. Located near Bungay in Suffolk in East Anglia, the farm covers 136 hectares (336 acres). In 1946, it was composed of a patchwork of small fields separated by hedges where wildlife thrived. By 2021, 18 kilometers (11 miles) of hedges were removed, destroying 7 hectares (17 acres) of “space for nature.” Hedge removal allowed the use of far heavier farm machinery, which exacerbated soil compaction. It has been calculated that a quarter of the hedges in England and Wales were cut down between 1946 and 1974. Images courtesy of WildEast.

Unequal ownership

The U.K. has one of the most unequal rates of land ownership in the world: in England, about 25,000 landowners, who comprise less than 1% of the population and who are typically members of the aristocracy or corporations, control half the nation’s land, according to Guy Shrubsole in his 2019 book Who Owns England?

That’s a big problem, says George Monbiot, environmental campaigner and journalist. While he celebrates England’s recent surge of interest in rewilding, he adds: “The rewilding projects I favor are community schemes, like the Langholm Moor initiative, or crowdsourced, like the purchase of the Dundreggan Estate by Trees for Life.

“Obviously, I would prefer large landowners to use their power to restore nature than to trash it. But it would be better still to see the democratization of decision-making over land, with far greater community control and community ownership,” Monbiot told Mongabay. “The intense concentration of land ownership in the U.K. has historically been a major cause of environmental destruction. It remains a serious cause of social exclusion, undemocratic power and inequality.”

Carrying out a rewilding project in such circumstances is not easy. One project that caused significant conflict was the Glen Feshie estate in the Scottish Highlands. Most of the local population had been driven off rural lands, many migrating to the U.S., during the “Clearances,” the tenant evictions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The emptier landscapes that these expulsions created attracted groups of wealthy aristocrats who hunted the burgeoning population of red deer.

“It was the picture of unsustainability,” Thomas Macdonell, who became the Glen Feshie estate’s director of conservation in 2000, told Mongabay. He worked out a plan for restoring the landscape, which involved culling some deer to allow natural regeneration of trees on the bare moorland.

But big estate owners and animal rights activists opposed his plan, and Macdonell even received death threats. It was hard going, but after three years things started to shift. “All of a sudden, I spied something green nearby and I found all these new trees were coming up! That was the eureka moment,” said Macdonell. The initiative gradually gained popular support and flourished.

By contrast, the opposition to WildEast seems limited. Olly Birkbeck allows the public to visit Massingham Heath, and many early critics, he says, came on board this spring when wildlife saw a resurgence.

“Suddenly, everyone from the village — the very people who’d been saying, ‘What are you doing, you lunatic? I can’t bear this mess’ — they suddenly became zealots in favor of it. And now they feel a sense of ownership of it. And you see them looking for wild ponies and wild pigs and goats and all the things we’ve got,” says Birkbeck.

“Gray partridges have thrived and are coming back,” he concludes. If all goes well, the great bustard will join them in a few years’ time. As for the fate of England’s great rewilding experiments, time will tell.

Sue Cox with Alan Neville from Greater Anglia. Cox rewilded this area along the platform at the Somerleyton railway station. The railway company is encouraging others to follow her example. The company currently has 6,400 square meters (69,000 square feet) of gardens attractive to insects and other wildlife along its tracks. Image by Rebecca Branford for Mongabay.

Banner image: Exmoor ponies on Somerleyton Estate. Image by Rebecca Branford for Mongabay.

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