WildEast nature movement seeks rapid growth after milestone year

WildEast's founding trustees, from left, are Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy

The WildEast nature movement has marked its first anniversary. Pictured from left are founding trustees Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy - Credit: Mark Cator/UtterBooks Mark

A fledgling East Anglian nature movement has rallied 1,000 pledges to its cause in its first year - now it wants to accelerate that growth through business buy-ins and community inspiration.

WildEast was launched last summer with the 50-year ambition of returning 20pc of the region's land to wildlife.

It challenged everyone to pledge 20pc of their own landscape to nature, from major farming estates to schools, businesses, back yards and church yards.

The first 1,000 pledgees, covering an area of 68 square kilometres, have been marked on an interactive "Map of Dreams" which illustrates the growing strength of the movement. 

Now the aim is to multiply that number by 10 in the next 12 months by harnessing the support of major utility and energy companies, as well as expanding the group's nature recovery message through educational programmes and the influential example of early "exemplar" pledgees.

Hugh Somerleyton, owner of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft, is one of the three founding trustees of WildEast.

He said: "We always knew we would be judged on people and acres. To have reached a thousand pledges around about the time of the anniversary is really great.

Risby Wildlife Friendly Village. Pictured from left, Susan Glosso, Jane Bryant, Sophie Flux, Jackie

Risby Wildlife Friendly Village, one of WildEast's exemplar pledgees. Pictured from left, Susan Glosso, Jane Bryant, Sophie Flux, Jackie Orbell and Carol Green - Credit: Mark Beaumont

"When we started out we talked about school yards, church yards, back yards and farm yards - it was about everybody taking part and inspiring others.

"In addition to that we have been really pleased, and surprised in a way, that other sectors and other pre-existing networks like Highways England and [rail company] Greater Anglia have wanted to put their estates forward, so that multi-sector alliance has grown in complexity, and therefore in strength.

"Turning that into something tangible, marketable and valuable is probably the next big phase for us. We cannot continue to live off goodwill so we need to be able to raise some money to push the message forward.

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"If we can pull together some of the big utility and energy players, who in broad terms are attracted by the scale and the brand, and have big money to invest, it would expand that strong sense of a multi-sector alliance. And with that would come the growth in number.

"If we were an organisation of 10,000 pledgees in a year's time, with that acceleration coming partly from compound growth, but also from being able to spend more on getting the message out there more universally, together with a broader alliance including some of the bigger farming groups as well as utilities and energy companies, then this voice will really begin to articulate this message together."

Fellow trustee Ollie Birkbeck, director of the Little Massingham Estate in west Norfolk, said one of the key challenges of the first 12 months was inspiring engagement from the farming community.

"I think that has been the biggest challenge for us, and we have been able to refine our message a bit to persuade farmers that we should be setting an example and bringing society with us on this idea of making space for nature," he said.

Great Massingham Biodiversity Project. PIcture: Mike Jackson

The Great Massingham Biodiversity Project is one of WildEast's exemplar pledgees - Credit: Mike Jackson

"I am very optimistic in this idea that this is a societal movement and I think it is interesting what the reaction has been among normal people who just want to do something. Hugh has always talked about this idea that someone pledging 20pc of their garden in Norwich is just as important as a farmer pledging 20pc of their farm.

"That idea of an umbrella embracing our collective desire as a society to do better is really starting to bear fruit and I think people are seeing us as a way of expressing that in an apolitical way. I do feel we are in a position where we do have some influence and the fact that some of the bigger corporate names are coming to us to investigate the idea of offsetting."

The third trustee is Argus Hardy, a Suffolk architect who comes from a family of naturalists, zoologists and farmers with strong links to nature conservation.

He said WildEast's first year had helped highlight the huge effort of community groups and volunteers.

"What I found most surprising is how moving this last year has been - again and again, seeing  volunteers across the region doing extraordinary things," he said.

"The farms own a large majority of the land, but what has the impact is the people. There is so much that is going on out there.

"A lot of the climate change and nature recovery debate is about bad news, and devastating headlines about what we have lost. So what we have tried to do is celebrate the good news, and the amount of community groups and people out there who are prepared to make changes in their own lifestyle and their own gardens as a commitment to nature recovery.

"That is what got me excited about WildEast - this idea of the democratisation of nature recovery, that anyone can get involved, and it doesn't matter at what scale, it all makes a difference. That is really coming through."


Train operator Greater Anglia was the first transport provider to take the WildEast pledge

Train operator Greater Anglia was the first transport provider to take the WildEast pledge - Credit: Greater Anglia

Train operator Greater Anglia is one example of the growing commercial interest in conservation, after becoming the first transport provider to take the WildEast pledge.

The company added 56 railway station gardens to WildEast’s Map of Dreams – pledging over 6,400 square metres of land to help the region’s wildlife.

Greater Anglia’s station gardens have developed over many years, and some are new additions, all looked after by the firm's team of 268 community volunteers, called "station adopters".

Their work has made the gardens important havens for nature which are helping to connect local habitats and allow wildlife to move between sites, making them more resilient to change.

A recent survey found that a wide range of creatures are visiting the station gardens, including many different types of butterflies as well as bees, slow worms, bats, foxes, deer and countless birds. In all, over 200 different species of flora and fauna have been recorded.

  • To find out more about WildEast, or to make your own pledge for nature, visit www.wildeast.co.uk or follow @wildeastuk on social media.
The WildEast 'Map of Dreams' illustrates the nature recovery ambitions of people across East Anglia

The WildEast 'Map of Dreams' illustrates the nature recovery ambitions of people across East Anglia - Credit: Global MapAid

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