Rewilding — does it need a rethink?


There are two very different sides to Merlin Hanbury-Tenison’s Cornish farm. One is almost magical woodland, intact for centuries, and rich in oaks and beard lichens. The other is less spectacular pasture, the most recent attempt to make a profit from the moorland.

Hanbury-Tenison, an energetic 34-year-old former army officer and management consultant, has a plan — “a three or four-decade-long vision”. Having taken on the 330-acre cattle and sheep farm last year from his father, he now wants to tear up the fences separating its two sides and to allow the trees to take over the grazing land.

To add to the wildness, there will be beavers, roaming Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, pine martens and perhaps even bison to break up the gauze.

The farm’s income will come from yoga retreats, corporate away-days and whatever post-Brexit environmental payments the UK government devises. Visitors will soak up the woodland air — a therapeutic practice known as forest-bathing — or scythe a field, “a wonderful group activity, incredibly meditative, it’s like t’ai chi”.

His dream, he told me when we met in March, is to hand over the farm to the next generation “as both financially sustainable and ecologically sustainable — and without getting too hippy about it, spiritually sustainable, where I don’t look at the fields and they’re pockmarked like the Somme”. He mixes practicality with ease.

The Knepp estate in West Sussex, where 3,500 acres has beenf turned over to nature
The Knepp estate in West Sussex, where 3,500 acres has beenf turned over to nature © Charlie Burrell

Since the publication of Isabella Tree’s 2018 book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, about her and her husband’s transformation of the 3,500-acre Knepp estate in West Sussex, the idea of turning land over to nature has gripped the British imagination. The movement promises to end generations of declining wild bird, insect and mammal populations. But how far could it change the landscape?

The coronavirus shutdown has led many to savour nature on their doorsteps. It has brought surreal visions of animals taking over — from goats roaming the streets of Llandudno to peacocks parading through Madrid. But it has also brought the question of food security to the fore.

The absence of humans during lockdown led mountain goats to roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales
The absence of humans during lockdown led mountain goats to roam the streets of Llandudno, Wales © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

These questions have particular significance in the UK, which was already on the cusp of one of the most significant changes in farming for generations, thanks to Brexit. All landowners and farmers are awaiting details of what will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

The Environmental Land Management scheme, due to be piloted from late 2021, will pay farmers for providing “public goods” such as planting woodland and restoring peatland.

The ELM is intended to “encourage some really significant land use change”, says Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, a government advisory body and longtime supporter of rewilding.

At the same time, Juniper says, “Everywhere is different — in terms of the ownership, the history, the proximity to a city and therefore a market, the soil type, the current liabilities, the current business model, and the ecology and what you could do with the land.”

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Bluebells beneath a Celtic oak on Merlin Hanbury-Tenison's Cornish farm. Last year he took on his father's 330-acre cattle and sheep farm and now wants to allow woodland to take over the grazing land
Bluebells beneath a Celtic oak on Merlin Hanbury-Tenison’s Cornish farm. Last year he took on his father’s 330-acre cattle and sheep farm and now wants to allow woodland to take over the grazing land

Tree’s Knepp estate had inbuilt advantages: it was close enough to London to attract tourists, with enough funds to survive the transition period and with buildings that could be rented out as office space for extra income. Hanbury-Tenison is further away from the capital, but he has experience of corporate events from his time as a consultant. Can rewilding work for him — and the rest of Britain?

Rewilding can mean introducing a single species (such as wolves in Yellowstone National Park) or seeking to recreate whole ecosystems (like Knepp) or trying to leave the land largely alone. It can aim to reclaim the past, or to build something new.

Wolves had been absent from Yellowstone National Park for 70 years when they were reintroduced in the 1990s, which caused dramatic ecological change
Wolves had been absent from Yellowstone National Park for 70 years when they were reintroduced in the 1990s, which caused dramatic ecological change © Alamy

The common thread is to create areas where human intervention is less, where more species can exist in greater numbers and where ecosystem services such as flood prevention and carbon storage can be prioritised. The promise is simple: to leave the natural world in a better state than we found it.

Three-quarters of the British public support the return of beavers. Nearly half want wolves and lynxes too, and a third even want brown bears. This could be dismissed as urbanite romanticism. But a sizeable minority of landowners is also looking for change.

“I started off [three years ago] knocking on people’s doors. Now I’m just trying to cope with demand,” says Alastair Driver, director of the charity Rewilding Britain. He only deals with projects of at least 1,000 acres — of which he has found at least 20 in the UK.

Grazing land on Hanbury-Tenison's farm. He plans a 'spiritually sustainable' business model that will include yoga retreats, corporate away-days and a therapeutic practice known as forest-bathing
Grazing land on Hanbury-Tenison’s farm. He plans a ‘spiritually sustainable’ business model that will include yoga retreats, corporate away-days and a therapeutic practice known as forest-bathing

Rewilding Britain wants to turn about 4 per cent of Britain’s land over to nature this century. That is 1m hectares by 2100, equivalent to more than 700 Knepp estates. “Realistically, a lot of it will be in Scotland,” says Driver. Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish fashion billionaire, is seeking to rewild an estate of 89,000 acres in the Highlands.

In theory, the space exists, even in a country as densely populated as the UK. Grouse moors cover 1.3m hectares, according to Rewilding Britain. Golf courses — which cater to a declining clientele — cover up to 150,000 hectares, according to an analysis by the FT.

The most significant potential is farmland. Nearly three-quarters of the UK is farmed. Without subsidies, 42 per cent of farms would have made a loss, according to the National Audit Office. In marginal areas, such as the uplands, a lot of farmers are “seeing the writing on the wall”, says Driver.

Ancient oak woodland on Hanbury-Tenison's farm, enjoyed by Elsa the Labrador and Myrtle the Westie
Ancient oak woodland on Hanbury-Tenison’s farm, enjoyed by Elsa the Labrador and Myrtle the Westie

The new subsidy system may change the equation for at least some farmers. Direct farm payments will be phased out by 2027, starting with a cut of between 5 and 25 per cent in 2021. “With any change like this, there are going to be winners and losers,” says Claire Robinson, a policy adviser at the National Farmers’ Union.

Even if farmers are eligible for environmental payments, they may lack the capital to make the necessary investments. Others may struggle to pay mortgages. “We’re a couple of years off the details that farmers need to make a proper business decision,” says Robinson.

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Jason Beedell, director of research at estate agents Strutt & Parker, estimates that three-quarters of farms will find profits reduced under the new subsidy scheme. He “would not be surprised” if a quarter or a third of the farmed area made significant changes — including large-scale rewilding.

But he does not expect a surge in the amount of land sold. If rewilding is to prosper, it will largely be through existing landowners.

Knepp is close enough to London to attract tourists to its camping sites. 'I’m very sympathetic to the Knepp estate,' says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, 'but it’s not the blueprint'
Knepp is close enough to London to attract tourists to its camping sites. ‘I’m very sympathetic to the Knepp estate,’ says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, ‘but it’s not the blueprint’ © Charlie Burrell

Uplands farms are often cited as the obvious starting point. However, the Summit to Sea project is a cautionary tale. Backed by several environmental charities, its 25,000 acres were intended to create “one continuous, nature-rich area, stretching from the Pumlumon massif — the highest area in mid-Wales — down through wooded valleys to the Dyfi estuary and out into Cardigan Bay”.

Despite £3.4m in backing from philanthropist Lisbet Rausing’s Endangered Landscapes Programme, Summit to Sea has been stalled by local opponents, who claim it would empty their communities.

Dafydd Morris-Jones, a sheep farmer and consultant who has led opposition, argues that the economics of Knepp do not apply to Welsh hills — where farms are smaller and land supports more families.

While Summit to Sea proclaims the benefits of nature, Morris-Jones points to the cultural role of farming in keeping alive the Welsh language. (This is a priority for the Welsh government, which wants to increase the number of Welsh speakers, currently 875,000, to 1m by 2050.) He also argues that many ground-nesting birds, such as curlews, rely on grazing.

“We need to understand that our landscape is a co-evolved landscape,” he says. “I don’t think rewilding, in the way it’s currently understood, has a place.” Rewilding Britain, originally a backer, was forced to withdraw last year. Summit to Sea is now revising its plans.

The 25,000-acre Summit to Sea rewilding project in Wales has been stalled due to opponents who claim it would empty their communities
The 25,000-acre Summit to Sea rewilding project in Wales has been stalled due to opponents who claim it would empty their communities © Alamy

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, is not an opponent of rewilding. “It would be very good to rewild the uplands. Inappropriate land being rewilded again is magnificent for ecosystems.”

But Lang has a question: “What about the food?” The UK currently produces only about half of the food it consumes. The government’s approach leaves supermarkets to solve the problem of food security, argues Lang. “It’s complacency writ large.”

In his book Feeding Britain, Lang emphasises that the food system serves economic, social and human health, promoting everything from efficiency and fair competition to nutrition and animal welfare. “I’m very sympathetic to the Knepp estate, but it’s not the blueprint,” he says.

There are ways that Britain could square the circle. It could both set aside more land for nature and produce more of its own food if it cut meat production and food waste. An estimated 85 per cent of UK land goes to generating animal products.

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Either way, rewilding may progress. Because of recent changes to UK law, developers will soon have to deliver a “net gain” in biodiversity. The government is committed to delivering net zero-carbon emissions by 2050.

The Committee on Climate Change, an independent think-tank, has proposed that the amount of grassland and rough grazing land could be reduced by as much as one-third — or 4.5m hectares — by 2050, freeing up land for tree-planting and peatland restoration.

Lincolnshire and East Anglia account for some of England’s most productive agriculture land, but their soils are also blowing away, representing a huge release of carbon. Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist who has advised the government on farming, last year said: “At any reasonable carbon price, there would be no agriculture in the British fens whatsoever.”

Lang takes a different view: the UK needs its farming to spread around the country to maximise its resilience to climate change.

For advocates of rewilding, recognising these trade-offs is a necessary step. “It’s all about choices, and being explicit about those choices,” says Craig Bennett, the incoming head of The Wildlife Trusts, a coalition of green charities.

His choice is the return of native species that have been lost over the past centuries. “I like to see that as the next step in human progress — 200 years after the industrial revolution, which started in this country.”

Bennett wants one-third of the UK to be given over to nature recovery, by linking up everything from roadside verges to hedgerows and sites of special scientific interest. Currently, the figure is below 15 per cent. Bennett argues the public is on rewilding’s side: “Right now, with the lockdown, people are realising more than ever before how much they need that daily dose of nature.”

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Coronavirus’s impact may slow some parts of the transition. The Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs has paused its consultation on farm payments and the National Food Strategy. Whether British enthusiasm for rewilding will survive a post-coronavirus world is uncertain.

Back on Bodmin, Hanbury-Tenison is aware that rewilding is an anathema to many farmers. “A lot of people in the rewilding community are considering whether we need a fundamental rebrand,” he says.

But the underlying health benefit of nature is, to him, clear. “I hope that we place a value upon it.”

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