How do you actually rewild a property? | FT Food Revolution
The word rewilding can conjure up images of going back in time to a landscape of wild animals and deep forest. Its popularity is growing in the UK, but how exactly do you go about rewilding, and why is it being linked, in some cases, to greenwashing? The FT’s Leslie Hook visits two properties at different stages of the rewilding process to discover more
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Out in Sussex in the south of England, there's a piece of land that's at the forefront of the UK's rewilding movement. The word rewilding can conjure up images of going back in time to a landscape with wolves and bears and deep forest. But actually it looks quite different. So what exactly is rewilding and how do you go about it?
To find out I'm visiting two properties at different stages of the rewilding process. The first, the Knepp Castle Estate.
In mediaeval times, this would have been very, very common. It's actually a wood pasture system. So lots of thorny scrub, lots of complex species in it, driven by free-roaming animals.
Isabella is the author of the 2018 bestseller "Wilding" about a rewilding project that she and her husband embarked on in 2001, covering an area of some 3,500 acres.
People would look at this and say it's a waste of space. It's good for nothing. But actually it's one of the most biodiverse habitats there is. You can hear the birdsong. You know it's just incredible. It's thick. It's all around us.
In simple terms, rewilding looks to restore natural ecosystems by stepping back and leaving an area to nature. So how do you get started?
If you want to get nature back you don't go out and plant trees, you put free-roaming animals in the system in the right numbers. And then they start creating habitat for you.
But is it economically viable?
Well, we still receive a subsidy so we're paid for doing these ecological improvements as it were for increasing biodiversity, storing carbon, improving water quality, flood mitigation, for air quality, and providing an amenity for human health and wellbeing. But worst case scenario, if those kind of subsidies disappear for some reason, we're still we think now a viable business. We have ecotourism which last year turned over about one million pounds.
And here, certain elements of traditional farming do remain.
We sell the meat, 75 tonnes of it a year. And because there are no inputs, they eat out there all year round, it's very low-cost. It's incredibly low carbon. So the profit we make from those animals is way, way more than we could have made under conventional farming.
Public awareness of rewilding is growing. A recent poll carried out by YouGov saw four out of five people supporting rewilding in the UK.
We're actually ranking one of the bottom countries in the world in terms of our biodiversity losses. But people's awareness of biodiversity loss and the urgency to tackle climate change are now at the forefront of people's minds. The charity Rewilding Britain now has a network of more than 56 rewilding projects of 1,000 acres or more across the country. It wants to see at least five per cent of Britain's land turned over to nature this century.
We're looking to encourage, enthuse people to rewild on the ground. And part of my role involves going out to large landowners in England and Wales to advise them on that, by invitation. I only go by invitation only. It's all voluntary. You know no one's forcing it on anyone.
Rewilding critics say it removes rural jobs. But that's not what they've experienced at the Knepp Estate. As a conventional farm it employed around 20 people and today that number is closer to 50. And Rewilding Britain says job losses haven't occurred on other rewilding sites thanks to the creation of roles such as safari guides and ecologist stock managers.
What we've been able to show so far is that for the 43 sites that we have good data for, we have seen a 65 per cent increase in jobs compared with traditional farming beforehand.
For my second stop I've come to Windswept West Norfolk and a 4,000 acre property called Wild Ken Hill. Three years ago, they began rewilding part of the estate.
Rewilding is one of the most effective nature-based tools we have against climate change. One of the great things about rewilding is it's a very low-cost simple tool to implement and manage.
About a quarter of the farm has been turned over to a variety of wildlife.
We just created a perimeter fence around the landscape of 1,000 acres and we added our natural grazing animals - the ponies, cattle, pigs, and we also reintroduced beavers to manage the landscape for us. So quite light touch actually to get going.
So what are the revenue streams of the farm right now?
So the wider farm we're still pretty heavily exposed to farming. That's probably about 50 per cent of our income. But much more now is derived from this countryside stewardship scheme where the UK government incentivizes us to deliver public goods for society. But we're also diversifying into nature-based tourism.
So what does rewilding mean to you?
It's a tool in the box that we can use to deliver public goods for society. In this case, it's carbon sequestration, restoring our ecosystems and providing access to green space for people.
The carbon sequestration rewilding delivers is one factor contributing to its rising popularity. But that popularity can also create problems in the form of greenwashing, posing as rewilding.
Actually now the biggest challenge we face is the misuse of the word rewilding. We are now in the situation where we potentially have big organisations buying up large tracts of land, planting them with non-native species for carbon sequestration and calling that rewilding. And it absolutely is not rewilding.
Avoiding an ill-intentioned corporate land grab may come down to developing a carbon certification system down the line. But at those places that are genuinely rewilding, there is real optimism about its potential.
We hope in the long-term this becomes one of the most exciting nature reserves in the UK. But also that with our approach we've shown how rewilding can fit into the wider landscape alongside farming and traditional conservation.
We've gone from being a nature-depleted land to one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the UK in less than 20 years. If it can happen here underneath the Gatwick stacking system surrounded by A-roads in the southeast of England, it can happen anywhere.