Rewilding the UK, one abandoned lot at a time

Once considered a cause of the very rich, managing land for the benefit of nature is now widely embraced as a way to restore biodiversity

A hedged farm track allowed to run wild is a haven for birds, bees, insects, and other wildlife. Hedgerows are considered Britain's largest wildlife habitat.

NORWICH, England—“A big thorn bush and a load of brick rubble,” says Sarah Smith, recalling the pre-pandemic state of her printing company’s yard on the outskirts of this medieval east England city.

A couple of years on, it has been transformed into a miniature mosaic of wildflowers, grasses, lavender, and poppies. There are ponds, a rock garden, a vegetable patch, herbs, and a little compost heap decomposing merrily in the sun. Birdsong battles with the thrum of the refrigeration unit at the meat wholesaler next door, bees stock up on nectar as they pass by the warehouses, and field mice scurry through the chain link fence in search of shade, seeds, and insects. It is messy and bursting with life.

This patch of converted wasteland may be only a few hundred square feet, but it is part of a broad movement that aims to reconnect people with nature—and repair some of the catastrophic biodiversity loss that has led to the disappearance of nearly half of Britain’s wildlife and plant species since the Industrial Revolution. Smith and her project are part of a rewilding campaign run by WildEast, a nonprofit encouraging people to let 20 percent of whatever they have grow wilder, whether by creating a pond for wildlife in the backyard, letting churchyard grasses grow long, or turning acreage on private estates back to nature.

Similar efforts are underway across the United Kingdom, involving non-profits, local government, and ordinary folk. So far, a fifth of Britain’s county councils—43 of 206 councils—have already created rewilding projects or are drawing up plans for them, according to a survey by the Guardian newspaper and Inkcap Journal, a nature and conservation newsletter. They range in size and scope, from reconnecting an industrial stretch of a river to its natural floodplain in East Renfrewshire on the outskirts of Glasgow, to rewilding a golf course in Brighton on England’s south coast where wildflower meadows once thrived.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan is pursuing an ambitious $723,000 (£600,000) campaign to restore degraded sites for plants and wildlife across 20 percent of the city. Using patches of urban land to create more green space in the city and by connecting corridors of overgrowth to larger reserves on the outskirts, Khan says he wants to give his city’s 9.5 million residents a “thriving web of nature on their doorstep.”

The plan imagines Londoners contributing their window boxes, rooftops, and gardens, just as Smith did in the industrial park in Norwich. There are benefits for people as well as nature, she says. “I got so much from this project. Getting that balance between me and nature.” But it also, she says, “was about mental health.”

Smith had invested her savings into the new printing business, only for the COVID pandemic, with its rolling lockdowns keeping customers away, to trigger a slowdown that fast became a standstill. Staring at bankruptcy with less than $1,000 in the bank, Smith relieved her frustration and worries by “sobbing into my coffee cup,” then stepping outside and “just digging and forgetting about it” to create her oasis. Becoming part of WildEast’s effort, she says, allowed her to feel part of a community of people taking similar actions. Sitting in her garden, surrounded by plants and insects, Smith says, “People come here and we start talking about WildEast, and my pledge to give back to nature, and I ask them, what if we all joined in?”

Encouraging all to join, even if only with a window box

Early efforts at rewilding in the U.K. are usually credited to Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, who two decades ago let 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) of their farmland in West Sussex, known as the Knepp Estate, go wild, turning their marginal arable fields into a thriving expanse of wildlife and native plants.

While the concept of rewilding as a conservation strategy continues to gain support as the effects of climate change are increasingly in evidence—Britain now languishes close to the bottom of global biodiversity rankings—the idea of rewilding has drawn mixed reviews. It has been derided as an elitist campaign of wealthy estate owners, an image that persists today, so much so that the Guardian headlined its list of U.K. projects, “Rewilding ‘not just for toffs,’” using British slang for the upper class.

The WildEast campaign signals a shift, as that Guardian headline suggests, toward a more expansive definition of restoring nature: Rewilding is not just for estate owners, but for everyone, and projects can be as simple as a window box of flowers that attracts bees or letting hedgerows, used for centuries to demarcate property lines, go untrimmed. To that end, Britain has 435,000 miles of hedgerows, about half what it had a century ago; they not only store carbon, but are considered the country’s largest wildlife habitat.

Some methods of rewilding, however, raise legitimate environmental questions, and controversy. Many who make a living from the land scorn the idea of abandoning it, while some large-scale tree-planting programs are derided as “greenwashing.” Returning wildlife can be even more problematic. Apex predators such as wolves get much of the attention—whether in Scotland or northern Europe—and wildcats and lynx worry both sheep farmers and pet owners. More benign reintroduced animals can also alter regions in ways not anticipated by the humans trying to help them. Because beavers can change the course of rivers, for example, their reintroduction across the U.K. after 400 years of extinction triggered concerns about flooding.

Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist, warns against such purist strategies that he says can undermine restoration efforts. “The rewilders should be very careful what they wish for,” he says in his 2020 paper “Is rewilding the answer?”

Instead of approaches that involve “nature without people,” Helm encourages “improving human management of nature,” meaning greater benefit could be obtained by the purposeful neglect of gardens, bolstering of hedgerows, seeding of abandoned plots, or “hiving off” of field edges and allowing them to go wild. All of those actions, he says, strengthen nature by increasing the number and variety of species while creating direct human benefits as well.

Farmers are essential to rewilding’s success

In the U.K., farmers are especially skeptical of rewilding, as most have neither a vast estate nor the money to leave it be. They also question taking land out of food production and worry about the loss of farm jobs. Yet any serious effort to restore the environment must include farmers. Farming has shaped the British countryside, culture, and nation, with roughly three-quarters of the U.K.’s total landmass today given over to agriculture. In England alone, while there are 219 nature reserves covering a total of 244,000 acres, farmland accounts for 90 times as much, at 22 million acres.

The founders of WildEast are well aware of the challenge. East England is one of the most heavily farmed regions in the U.K., and a place where the limits of farmers’ patience and resources will be sorely tested. “Rewilding is honey to some, poison to others,” acknowledges Hugh Somerleyton, who created the nonprofit along with two fellow landowners, Oliver Birkbeck and Argus Gathorne-Hardy.

Somerleyton’s formal title is Lord Somerleyton and he is the current owner of the 5,000-acre ancestral Somerleyton Hall estate in a village in Suffolk that bears his family name. He describes his partners as “old farming friends and dyed-in-the-wool conservationists,” and says WildEast’s ambitions are much larger than setting aside some of their own estates. The plan is to return 600,000 acres in East England to nature. “Unless we all do it, not just landowners, then we’re bound to fail,” he says.

If Sarah Smith’s industrial yard is at one end of the rewilding spectrum, Somerleyton’s estate, 25 miles to the east, is at the other. As a young man, Somerleyton considered himself an environmentalist—his late father would make fun of his son’s “feckless environmentalism.” But when he inherited the family estate a decade ago, he became more focused and, during a long road trip north to Scotland to visit a rewilding project with Birkbeck and Gathorne-Hardy, WildEast was born. All three have changed the way they farm, and are determined to rewild their 20 percent. Since 2017, Somerleyton has been working on letting a 1,000-acre expanse of heath, forest, and sandy pasture go natural. Inspired by Burell and Tree at the Knepp Estate, he followed their model: leaving land alone to rewild and weaving tourism in to earn money. Somerleyton explains the concept as we putter around in an electric boat on the scythe-shaped Fritton Lake, a shallow waterway that dates to the medieval peat-diggers who created it, and is the centerpiece of the project.

Somerleyton receives taxpayers’ money for “countryside stewardship” of his land, where he also runs a high-end tourism business with a members’ club, bar and restaurant, luxury cabins, and an outdoor swimming pool. We startle free-roaming deer browsing in the understory, glide past a sailing boat marooned in the reeds, and narrowly avoid two guests in triathlon wetsuits laboring through the water.

Fast-talking and energetic, Somerleyton’s enthusiasm and dedication are clear. “It’s not about someone crowing that, ‘Oh, we’ve got 5,000 acres and we’ve done this,’ it’s more societal,” he says. WildEast is even more aspirational. It seeks to “democratize nature recovery,” by inspiring and connecting individual efforts to create something bigger and more effective. “We all need to take personal responsibility for whatever space we’ve got. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, that’s where the power lies.”

Subsidies will reward environmental protections

Farmers may soon have more incentive to participate in Somerleyton’s vision, and from an unlikely source: Brexit. Farming may have shaped the nation, but it is scarcely viable without public support for farm subsidies. After the food shortages of World War II, European nations vowed to increase production, which led to the creation of agricultural subsidies that rewarded scale and yields above all else. Food prices have stayed low, but the environmental costs to soil and habitat have spiraled upwards.

When British people voted to leave the European Union in 2016, they voted to leave behind the strictures, as well as the benefits, of the political bloc, including around $4 billion a year in agricultural subsidies. The British government has pledged to match that investment, but with a new subsidy regime that rewards environmental protections. It also encourages regenerative practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, and reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and gargantuan farm machines. One minister called it “public money for public goods.”

Such steps will strengthen soil, capture carbon, retain water, increase biodiversity, and maintain productivity—while reducing costs, the government says. It also plans to offer payments to farmers who make “space for nature in the farmed landscape and the wider countryside, alongside food production.” It’s all a bit of a tricky balance, but an essential one if Britain is to meet its ambitious target to cut carbon emissions by 78 percent by 2035 and reverse the precipitous decline of species. So far, as this new approach takes shape, it has broad, if tentative, support from farmers, landowners, and environmentalists.

Somerleyton says the consequences of not taking this kind of action will prove disasterous as farming faces the challenges of worsening heat waves, drought, and torrential rain. “As a farmer, do you want to make changes now, and build a resilient East that’s going to be ready for climate change? Or do you just want climate change to come and take away your livelihood? Because if you carry on hard farming, soon you won’t be farming at all.”

Despite the attention to farmland and other large tracts, it is the focus on the smaller bits and pieces that ultimately may be the measure of WildEast’s success. To that end, WildEast’s founders set up an interactive “Map of Dreams” where pledges such as Smith’s industrial park are GPS tagged and recorded in what Somerleyton calls a “celebration” of what individuals, churches, schools and the like can do. The map includes a diverse range of projects, such as 56 station gardens of the regional Greater Anglia rail network, the water meadows of Bury St. Edmunds, made up of bits of gardens and allotments in the port town of Felixstowe, council-run tree planting in the city of Colchester, and a cooperative farm in Norwich. Additionally, the map includes many homeowners who have changed the way they garden, by choosing to care for nature rather than control it.

The WildEast founders, ever looking to set an example, are not only restoring their own woodlands, heath, and wetlands, they’re employing the full range of regenerative practices, including growing their hedgerows wide and tall, and leaving the wobbly corners and messy edges of productive arable fields to sprout wildflowers and grasses that attract bees, birds, and insects. “It’s all about the edgelands,” Gathorne-Hardy says.

During a late afternoon walk in his Suffolk estate, we cross from a sun-drenched idyll of hedge-lined fields of new wheat to a seemingly degraded, post-industrial terrain where scrub and brambles had sprouted close to an agricultural warehouse, a solar farm, and a deliberately abandoned, overgrown air strip. It reminded me of Smith’s industrial park, or many of the other surprising, proliferating, unruly spaces in England where long grasses and wildflowers are being left to grow, instead of being mowed and sprayed, gaps that can connect nature rather than be a barrier to it.

A nightingale bursts into song from a small stand of trees. Gathorne-Hardy grins. This messy, liminal zone, it turns out, was exactly what the endangered songbird was looking for.

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