Lord Somerleyton’s vision for a ‘wilder and wetter’ Suffolk

Hugh Somerleyton Picture: Ross Bentley

Hugh Somerleyton Picture: Ross Bentley - Credit: Archant

Lord Somerleyton is overseeing an ambitious rewilding project on his estate but the real prize is a region-wide collaboration of landowners all working for nature.

Woodland on the Somerleyton Estate Picture: Ross Bentley

Woodland on the Somerleyton Estate Picture: Ross Bentley - Credit: Archant

By his own admission, Lord Somerleyton is “lucky enough to have some land” to dedicate to his rewilding vision.

For this exciting and ambitious project on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, he intends to give a fifth of his 5,000 acre estate back to nature, restoring the natural ecosystems on land around Fritton Lake near Oulton Broad so it can take care of itself.

Rewilding is a concept that has taken off in the world of conservation - rather than working hard to maintain a habitat for a handful of specialist species, the idea is to introduce a number of apex species to an area and leave things to see what happens.

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And a transformation is already underway on this mosaic of heath, mature woodland and wetland, along with former arable land that is now being left to gradually revert to its natural state. Down at nearby Herringfleet, an area of river valley by the Waveney has been allowed to flood, bringing overwintering birds back to the location; tonnes of trees have been removed from the woodland to encourage light in; while fencing is soon to be erected to allow the arrival of sheep, ponies, pigs and even bison.

Hugh Somerleyton and grazing expert Leo Linnartz pictured on land earmarked for the re-wilding proje

Hugh Somerleyton and grazing expert Leo Linnartz pictured on land earmarked for the re-wilding project at Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

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At the moment there’s a lot of manpower going into a scheme that is fundamentally based on the principal of letting nature take over but Lord Somerleyton and his team are at the preparatory stage. Once the ruminants are in place the theory is they will act as “bio-engineers”; their stomping and rooting will disturb and reactivate native seeds long laid dormant in the earth; the grazing, browsing and striping will create a patchwork of different habitats for smaller animals to move in; their dung provide natural fertiliser, seed distribution and homes for beetles and other insects.

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It’s a long term project - these changes will happen over decades - and Lord Somerleyton has both good business reasons as well as altruistic motives for taking what is a radical approach for a Suffolk landowner.

On the business side, with Brexit approaching and direct farm subsidies on their way out, using this rather unproductive section of the estate for something other than arable farming makes sense. Fritton Lake is also home to a popular holiday site, complete with luxury lodges, a watersports centre and on-site pub, and, given the growing interest in rewilding, the hope is the new wildlife that moves in over the coming years will become an attraction in its own right.

The animals grazing the land can also be sold as high-quality, free-range meat - another trend that is on the up.

Beyond boundaries

But these commercial drivers have also allowed Lord Somerleyton to follow his heart.

Stags at the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris Hill

Stags at the Somerleyton Estate. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

“I’m not sure where it comes from but I have an in-built presumption to care and do something for the environment,” he said.

And as we tour the estate it becomes clear his ambition goes far beyond his own boundaries. He talks about the Oostvaardersplassen scheme in Holland where 22sq miles of reclaimed land east of Amsterdam has been turned into a marshy haven for wildlife, and points to Paul Lister, founder of the European Nature Trust, as an inspiration for bringing together several large estates at Alladale in the north of Scotland for the purposes of rewilding and ecotourism.

These are rewilding projects on a landscape-scale where wildlife really has the space to flourish properly, he says, and that is what he wants to aim for up and above his own rewilding venture.

“Yes, I’d like it [Somerleyton Estate] to be an example,” he continued.

“I’d like it to be much visited and I’d like schools, tourists and other special interest groups to interact with it. All that is important. “But although there will be a local impact, on its own 1,000 acres is not enough to have an enormous impact on nature.”

Wild East

Lord Somerleyton’s grander vision is the Wild East project - “It’s a working title but it might stick as everyone seems to like it,” he said.

Fritton Lake

Fritton Lake - Credit: Archant

He describes it as a “super-regional collaborative mindshare project” involving landowners and conservation organisations such as Suffolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the Broads Authority, with the aim of creating and connecting wild areas ranging from the boundary of the A47 in Norfolk in the North, down to Orford in the south and across to Diss in the west.

Lord Somerleyton admits the project is “very much in its infancy” but that a network of his peers across this region; landowners who have bought into the rewilding philosophy, are behind it.

“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 continued.

“The area takes in river valleys, sandlings and heaths, 50,000 acres of flood plain and 60-70 miles of coast. 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?”

Fizzing with excitement

As a first step, the project is talking to bodies such as the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the hope it may fund a six-month study of the potential area “to give it some scientific credibility”.

But beyond this, Lord Somerleyton is adamant that landowners must be prepared to make the changes themselves rather than wait for a new funding regime post-Brexit that rewards those who improve the environment.

Farmland that has been left to revert back to its natural state near Fritton Lake Picture; Ross Bent

Farmland that has been left to revert back to its natural state near Fritton Lake Picture; Ross Bentley - Credit: Archant

“There will be grants along the way but we shouldn’t sit around and wait be told by the government what to do - that will still be regulatory and involve form-filling, and won’t be enough to restore nature on its own,” he said.

“We are better off working together to rekindle the relationship that farmers have traditionally had with nature.

“Certainly in my area – there’s 12 estates and big farms who recognise the need to do something more by themselves rather than wait for the government to give them a piece of paper.”

He says there is a new generation of farmers coming into the industry who are much more environmentally conscious than their forebears while he has seen an increase in farmers who haven’t traditionally been interested in preserving wildlife but who are now “fizzing with excitement that they have more hedgerow sparrows that their neighbour”.

Opening doors

Lord Somerleyton is particularly keen to see the region’s river valleys – of the Waveney, Yare, Blyth and Alde –managed more with wildlife in mind.

“A lot of this land is arable and is sprayed and excessively drained. But if much of the area is managed more benignly - bringing in sensitive grazing on a wetter landscape - it could transform the area.”

Looking to the long-term future for a moment Lord Somerleyton envisions the Wild East Foundation buying up bits of land to enable wildlife corridors and working with Highways England to build green bridges to help wildlife cross our busy roads.

But, back in the here and now, he said there is a lot of work to be done on the ground, convincing other landowners and farmers to give some of their land over to nature for the greater good to start the ball rolling.

He added: “I’m sure I’ll get a lot of doors shut in my face but one might open, and if each of the landowners in the group does the same thing - hopefully it will ripple out from there.”

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