A 27-year-old vegetarian is not who you’d expect to speak to about the state of UK farming (the average age of a UK farmer is 59). However, Dom Buscall from Norfolk is part of the new generation of UK farmers leading the rewilding movement.
Dom is the project manager of Ken Hill Estate which has been rebranded Wild Ken Hill to reflect its new purpose. The rewilding project launched in 2019, to restore nature to a thousand acres (approximately 500 football pitches) of “classic Norfolk arable rotation of wheats, barley, turnips and one year off” Dom tells me, and convert another thousand acres to regenerative farming. The estate also boasts two thousand acres of woodland.
Two years on, the processes of nature are enveloping the landscape. Ragged yellowing grasses now form a scrubby landscape reveling in the freedom from herbicides. The fields are circled by dark green woodland and wetlands. Over time, the landscape will continue to change as animals are introduced, and the health of the soil begins to improve, sequestering carbon and nitrogen, and enabling plants and wildlife to thrive.
In the Ken Hill forest, two male beavers from Scotland recently joined two females who have made the landscape home over the past 6 months. Known as nature’s architects, beavers create conditions for a number of plants and wildlife by building dams and rerouting water to new areas.
Rewilding is gaining popularity across the UK, from the Highlands to southern England. Isabella Tree, the author of Wilding: The return of Nature to a British Farm, has been the proprietor of Knepp Castle, a rewilding project in West Sussex for almost 20 years. She writes in her recent Vogue article that the “exuberant, rambunctious tangles and thickets where once there had been agricultural orderliness” initially upset her neighbors. But she has stayed committed to her vision, and now people come to visit her land as a vision for a possible ecosystem in the British countryside.
However, Isabella also wavered in her belief in the project. One year, bright purple thistles had taken over the farm. She was at a loss. But seemingly from nowhere thousands of painted lady butterflies arrived at Knepp Castle to lay their eggs on the thistles. She writes “Weeks later, spiky black caterpillars were swarming over the thistles, spinning silken webs like tents. By autumn, they had devoured the leaves, pupated, and left—and just like that, nature had solved our problem. As the new year began, the 60 acres of thistle were gone.”
Nature is in crisis
Despite these vivid depictions of rewilding, the UK remains one of the most “nature depleted countries” on the planet according to RSPB. Centuries of industrialization have wounded natural ecosystems. Today, almost 15% of species are at risk of extinction.
It is not only wildlife that is suffering. Last year every single river and lake in the UK failed the clean water test. Thanks to a combination of raw sewage and agricultural runoff, rivers were deemed the dirtiest in Europe by the Environment Agency.
In North West Norfolk, where Wild Ken Hill is based, the Environment Agency reported that ten out of ten rivers failed tests due to their high chemical count, and nine out of ten rivers have a moderate or poor ecological status or potential. The cause: “poor soil management” in the agricultural industry.
Our poor ecological credentials contrast with the bold commitments to protect the environment from global warming. In the run up to the global climate discussion known as COP-26 hosted in Glasgow next year, the UK announced its goal to reduce GHG emissions by 68% by 2030 compared with 1990s levels. This represents the most ambitious carbon reduction target in the world.
But despite the ramp up in climate change commitments, there has been surprisingly little attention given to agriculture which occupies 70% of UK land. Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan included a nod to nature saying a goal of “Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs.” But unlike other sectors, his plan didn’t put a price tag on these ambitions.
Is rewilding the answer?
Nature and land use can reduce carbon emissions, create clean water and make the planet more resilient to climate change. One way that it achieves this is through negative emissions technologies by enhancing natural carbon sinks (such as forests), or by carbon capture and sequestration technology.
In order to maximize these benefits for humans, known as ecosystem services, Scarlett Benson, the Program Manager of the Food and Land Use Coalition at Systemiq tells me that globally “we need to restore 1.2 billion hectares of land and to natural ecosystems and by 2050 which is more than the size of Europe”.
Rewilding is also connected to global public health. Edward Davey, Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition at the World Resources Institute (WRI) tells me “if you really protected nature, you would reduce incidence of future pandemics and that would save trillions [of dollars] in future”.
During Covid-19 lockdowns, wilderness has proved a source of solace and continuity, highlighting the importance of embracing and nurturing nature via rewilding schemes. Davey tells me that “investment in nature does generate good jobs and they’re also jobs which are aligned with improving people’s mental health.”
However, some rewilders are nervous about inviting dog-walkers, and tourists to the land. Even if “98% of people do [stay on footpaths] and then some people don’t” Dom tells me, it still can damage the delicate ecosystems as each species fights to grow in the landscape.
And it is easy to romanticize nature. Dom tells me when watching George Monbiot’s video How Wolves Change Rivers in Yellowstone National Park in the US “I almost tear up”. However, Emma Marris, a writer working on modern environmentalism, tells me that some of the claims about Yellowstone are “at best over exaggerated, a little bit of wishful thinking”.
But nature doesn’t always have to provide a service to humans. Reintroducing genetically engineered mastodons in Siberia or wolves in the Scottish Highlands which Marris says, “correlate to a cultural sense that we said we overdid it, and we need to restore what was missing”, rather than the function that these animals provide.
Rewilding can achieve ecosystem services desperately needed in the UK. And rewilding can restore nature simply because it should exist.
And what will we eat?
But if all agricultural land is returned to nature, then what is left for us to eat? Fortunately, environmentalists have an answer for this.
E.O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard, wrote a book called Half Earth. His thesis, that 50 percent of land is “returned to nature”, and the other half is intensively farmed.
Other environmentalists argue for more integrated systems of farming and nature, relying on less productive, but more ecologically beneficial regenerative agriculture. In North Norfolk, Dom is combining rewilding with regenerative agriculture, planting cover crops like grasses to enhance soil quality. However, farmers have to find a way to kill the cover crops to return to growing crops they can sell like wheat or turnips. Instead of reverting to poisonous weed killers made popular in industrial farming, Dom invites his neighbor’s “400 sheep in for the day [to] just muller it”. The sheep graze new land, and the cover crops are destroyed.
“I spent years…trying to figure out which of these approaches was correct, because I kept thinking I had to choose between them. But I finally realized that I don’t really have to choose between them. That you can actually have a mix of these strategies.” says Marris. And you can get “better results with a mix than you do with either all just farming or all super intensive high yield.” Trying multiple approaches to feeding people seems like the best approach, to improve soil and sequestration where possible, whilst trialing new technologies for more efficient production.
Benson emphasizes that a shift in diets and slashing food waste would further reduce the amount of land required for farming. Almost 6.6 million tonnes of food in the UK is still thrown away every year which is equivalent to 10 billion edible meals. A Lancet journal piece Food in the Anthropocene published last year described a diet that could sustain 10 billion people and enable planetary health. The menu even includes some fish and poultry alongside plenty of legumes, nuts, and vegetables.
This diet might not be far away. Vegetarianism and veganism are already popular in the UK. And there have been calls by health experts for a climate tax on meat which would further reduce meat consumption. For Dom, this might mean that he “eats a beef steak from a cow which has delivered conservation benefits”, but otherwise eats vegetarian food.
UK wide funding
One of the drivers of rewilding is government policy. As we approach Brexit on 31st December, the UK is leaving the bloated Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – the EU’s largest program. CAP has provided about 3.5 billion each year for UK farms, mainly through direct payments to farmers.
Earlier this month, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched its Path to Sustainable Farming which outlines a potential new subsidy regime. The funding for farms is likely to be smaller than CAP which means that some farms might no longer be financially viable if they don’t change their practices towards “environmental services”.
However, if rewilding and regenerative agriculture are being taken seriously, then decimating the budget for Natural England a branch of Defra focused on conservation, whilst lauding a smaller “sustainable farming” program does not show it. Prospect, the union representing workers at Natural England recently highlighted that grant funding has fallen by almost 50% over the past ten years, and staff have fallen by 20%. In total, spending on biodiversity is just 20% of what it should be in the UK according to RSPB.
Farmers are ready to make changes. Dom tells me “until five years ago it was an extremely siloed industry”. Even if it would make commercial sense to share tractors, farmers would “still have our own and we wouldn’t share” he says. However, reduced government subsidies are forcing farmers to collaborate, and “people are realizing that the answers are often just next door”.
But if farmers are going to take the multi-year risk of rewilding, or regenerative agriculture, then they need to know that they can earn a livelihood by doing so. The current UK government funding plans are vague at best, and we are approaching the end of 2020 without knowing how the new land management subsidies will be allocated.
For example, the Government’s ambition to protect 30% of land by 2030 included in the Path to Sustainable Farming package isn’t just about adding areas of outstanding natural beauty to the existing 26% of protected land. The government has to invest in and increase biodiversity across all of this land. The existing 26% of protected land isn’t doing much for species diversity right now.
Can the private sector fill the funding gap?
Nature based solutions such as carbon offsets are a nascent business area. Microsoft has one of the most ambitious corporate net zero strategies which commits them to being carbon negative by 2030, and aims to remove all of their historical emissions by 2050. As part of this, Microsoft has to buy carbon to be sequestered elsewhere. Rewilded or reforested land with strong measurement techniques sequester carbon like those being set up in the UK and could be a good supplier of these credits.
Housing developers also have an interest in keeping the rivers clean and ensuring that nature is thriving near their properties. Some residential developers are starting to pay farmers to rewild land and stop using polluting fertilizers.
However, businesses should be wary of relying on nature-based offsets alone. Davey tells me “you can’t fund a whole lot of work on nature and not shift your business to a 1.5 or 2 degrees scenario. You need to do both”. This means that businesses must first decarbonize their business models as quickly as possible: banks should support clients that they are financing to decarbonize, car manufacturers should create zero carbon vehicles, and energy companies should create zero carbon electricity without relying on carbon offsets.
Nature needs our help
At the beginning of Covid-19, people noticed new animals in their areas, and started posting photos of animals from their lockdowns under the hashtag #natureishealing. Unfortunately, almost all of these claims – from dolphins in Venice canals to elephants drunk on corn wine – were found to be untrue.
A few weeks of lockdown isn’t enough to revive nature. Isabella Tree’s painted lady butterflies, a “shimmering miasma of orange and black” are the result of careful human planning, to enable nature to thrive. The “old idea of going back in time or fixing things by undoing human influence is not going to happen” Marris tells me “and it’s based on misunderstandings of environmental history and indigenous history.”
The UK has a long way to go to reverse recent species decline. Rewilding and regenerative agriculture are exciting opportunities for the UK to embrace nature. But to really rewild the UK, land use reform should be taken off the sidelines of the UK government agenda. Farmers and landowners need to start now – nature can’t come back overnight. That means a transparent and multi-year funding plan, creating new jobs in nature, and celebrating the UK’s natural world.
Emily Fry is a Master in Public Policy 2021 candidate and Belfer Young Leader at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to HKS, Emily led Sustainability (Americas) and Social Innovation at Barclays. Her policy interests include international climate change agreements, green economic stimulus, and just transition. Emily holds a BA (Hons) in Economics and Management from the University of Oxford.
Edited by: Lucy O’Keeffe
Photo by: George Murray