Could leaving parts of East Anglia to grow wild help us tackle climate change?
PUBLISHED: 11:30 15 June 2019 | UPDATED: 12:32 15 June 2019
If we are to reach 'net-zero' emissions by 2050, we need to capture carbon. Rewilding could sequester greenhouse gases, as well as bring many other benefits for man and wildlife.
The big environmental news this week has been the announcement of the Government's plan to work towards 'net-zero' greenhouse gases by 2050 in a bid to tackle climate change.
If the UK is to get anywhere near this target it will mean an end to heating homes with traditional gas boilers, more green electricity, and a switch from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles, walking and cycling. It could require people to eat less meat and dairy and take fewer flights.
But reducing emissions alone will not be enough. There is a general consensus that large amounts of carbon also need to be removed from the atmosphere.
One idea on how this might be achieved whilst also bringing a host of benefits for nature, is through rewilding and other so-called natural climate solutions. Rewilding is a concept that has taken off in the world of conservation in recent times - rather than working hard to maintain a habitat for a handful of specialist species, the idea is to enable the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself by introducing a number of apex species to an area and leaving things to see what happens.
One organisation at the forefront of promoting this wilder vision for the country is Rewilding Britain, which recently released a proposal document on how nature can help counter the massive challenge of climate change.
The charity has calculated that six million hectares of regenerating woodland, peatland and species-rich grasslands could sequester about 47 million tonnes of CO2 per year, more than a tenth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions. It says this would cost around £1.9 billion per year, a third less than the current estimated EU Common Agricultural Policy cost of £3 billion.
Rewilding Britain says, this moment in time, as the UK prepares for Brexit, presents a golden opportunity to devise a new subsidy system for farmers and landowners, and suggests that the cost of any rewilding programme could be covered by a carbon tax targeting big polluters.
Support for the proposal has been impressive - a petition on the Parliament Petitions website has generated over 100,000 signatures, meaning the issue will be considered for debate in Parliament, whilst Alistair Driver, a director at Rewilding Britain, says he has been "inundated" with enquiries as interest in the benefits of rewilding grows.
Up until now, supporters of rewilding have emphasised the gains that leaving marginal farming land to nature offers wildlife but, says Mr Driver, this new focus on the advantages for humans could broadened its appeal.
"We are a selfish species and because climate change is impacting on us, we are trying to do something about it," he said. "We have to emphasise the societal benefits of rewilding more."
To make a genuine difference, rewilding needs to happen "at scale," added Mr Driver, who was national head of conservation for the Environment Agency for more than a decade.
"We need landowners to form groups, to come together and to agree to try this on part of their land. On farming land, where there are few trees and hedges, there may have to be some significant tree planting, and work to raise water levels and restore wetlands. Where you have lots of trees, it may be a case of reducing livestock numbers and removing fences - the level of intervention to kick start things may be much less."
In some areas of East Anglia, groups of landowners are already uniting under the rewilding banner. Hugh Somerleyton, who owns the Somerleyton Estate on the Suffolk/Norfolk border is in the process of giving over a fifth of his 5,000 acre estate to nature.He is also spearheading an initiative called Wild East and has co-opted a dozen like-minded landowners - from Norwich down the Suffolk Coast - who share his vision.
"If we seriously want to reverse the declines in bird life, reptiles and mammals but also improve soil health and water quality it has to be a wider collaboration," he told the EADT in April. "Over a 25-year period or longer - what could the land look like? Wilder, wetter? With the reduction of the single farm payment, how much of that land might be better put back to nature?"
In Norfolk, conservation adviser at Natural England, John Ebbage says there are five or six large estates "interested" in rewilding with two landowners already committed to ecological restoration.
Mr Ebbage talks about rewilded areas creating "stepping stones" for wildlife to move between established wildlife rich areas, such as the Broads, the North Norfolk and Suffolk coasts and Breckland.
"We aren't saying take out Grade 1 Fen farming land - most of the land [that could be rewilded] is marginal and is a very small part of the countryside - more land is given over to golf courses."
He says he hopes for a future where land management will be made up of a holy trinity of rewilding, nature-friendly farming and conventional conservation.
At the Ken Hill farm, north of King's Lynn on the Wash, Dom Buscall says the family estate is about to undergo a transformation as part of an ambitious project to restore 500 acres of freshwater marsh and allow a neighbouring 1,000 acres of woodland and "unproductive" arable land to rewild.
"We fundamentally buy into the idea of rewilding," he said. "It allows more biodiversity and provides natural climate solutions. When you let these natural processes return, the organic matter in the soil that builds up starts sucking up carbon. Shrubs retain water better, which provides protection from droughts and floods.
He added: "That is before you get to the benefits to society and people being able to access nature. People are waking up to how much damage we have done to our natural systems."
The long-term vision at Ken Hill is to create an attraction for people interested in wildlife where they can stay, go on safari and practise photography. Offering nature-rich well-being retreats is also being considered.
These will all provide revenue streams in the future but, in the shorter term, the decision to rewild still makes commercial sense - the Countryside Stewardship grants the project will attract matching what the family could hope to achieve if it farmed the land.
Mr Buscall added: "Rewilding is a risk because you don't know what you are going to get but Brexit will be a huge squeeze for many farms and we would just be above break even if we did nothing."