Is East Anglia Going Wild?

Rewilding meadows in Essex
Rewilding meadows in Essex. Photo by Pondspider on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

‘Wilding’ is a hands-off approach to land management, letting biodiversity ‘restore itself’ without human interference. The wilding movement is growing and there are many places in East Anglia where it’s being tried.

Do we need wilding?

The UK is a nature-depleted country due to intensive farming, roadbuilding and industrialisation. Rewilding Britain says our nature is in trouble, with only four percent of land covered by native woodland, the lowest in Europe. Native woodland trees (oak, hazel, ash) colonised the UK after the last Ice Age and they enhance biodiversity. Non-native trees were more recent human imports (like pine for timber plantations).

The 2019 State of Nature Report said 41 percent of species have declined in the last 50 years with a quarter of mammals at risk of extinction. Hedgehog numbers have plummeted by 95 percent; toads by 68 percent. Further, climate change will adversely affect many species’ habitats, migration, diet and breeding seasons.

In 2020, the government published a 10 Point Plan for green recovery, and promised by 2025 to be rewilding “30,000 football pitches worth of countryside.” This sounds a lot, but it’s only the equivalent of 21,000 hectares across the country; the Norfolk Broads is over 30,000 hectares. More action is needed.

The public takes to wilding                                                                                

‘Eco Essex’ a Facebook group founded by Sam Pitman, supports over 5000 members to live more sustainably, and schools and small businesses to make eco-friendly changes.

She says, “In three years, since the Eco Essex community started, we’ve seen more conversations about biodiversity. People are becoming aware of the disadvantages of pesticides, and want to wild their garden by, for example, doing ‘No Mow May’ each year. Sowing wildflower seeds for pollinators is more popular too, with growing understanding about how crucial bees are. Eco Essex is so passionate about biodiversity that it’s part of an Essex and nationwide campaign on pesticide use.”

What does wilding look like nationally?

The Rewilding Britain Network now has over 50 sites ranging from Scottish Highlands to fenland to coastal saltmarshes. Rewilding aims “to restore the wider natural processes that support life (like grazing, flooding, natural woodland regeneration).”

Rewilding Britain hopes that, across five percent of the country, natural habitats like native forest, peat bogs, moorlands and living reefs can be restored. They claim there’s “no need for loss of any productive farmland.”

RSPB Wallasea Island in Essex is part of the network

This ‘island’ was farmed for 500 years after Dutch settlers built a wall round it and drained the land. Now conservationists are allowing rising sea levels to flood the remote coastal strip. However, the land level has been raised using 3 million tonnes of soil shipped from Crossrail excavations. This will reduce water entering during sea wall breaches. A varied range of habitats like lagoons, mudflats, saltmarsh and grassland will develop.

The RSPB hopes to show successful adaptation to climate change and sea level rise through this large practical example. Wallasea (like much Essex coastline) is predicted to be below annual flood level by 2030. This means floods will be expected on average annually, or ten times across ten years.

Climate change - rewilding Essex
Flood map for 2050 by Climate Central

30,000 wildfowl overwinter here and it’s now a breeding site for Mediterranean gull, corn bunting and yellow wagtail. There are water vole, brown hare and some rarer invertebrates such as the black oil beetle.

The project was financially supported by the Environment Agency for habitat creation, and Rochford District Council for visitor infrastructure, in order to reconnect people with their coastal heritage. It also protects the last berth site of Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle.

Wilding across East Anglia

WildEast was recently founded by three East Anglian conservation-minded farm-owners. It aims to ‘wild’ 20 percent of land or 250,000 hectares. They hope this can be achieved by stakeholders letting part of their land go wild. Already pledges to let nature take its course amount to 6800 hectares.

The plan was motivated by fears about the climate change and biodiversity crises. In the most intensively farmed UK region, WildEast hopes that every “backyard, schoolyard, farmyard and industrial yard can save a bit of space for nature.” Pockets of wildness could appear everywhere, preferable to having a few scattered larger reserves surrounded by inhospitable urban landscapes.

What could farmers do?

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Hugh Somerleyton, one of WildEast’s founders, says the campaign has received “pledges from more than 80 farmers in the region to devote 20 percent of their land to nature”. They suggest that farmers could leave one percent of land to go wild by ‘straight line farming’. This is sowing crops in rectangles, ignoring irregular edges and corners that may be less productive anyway. In this way, Somerleyton envisages “conventional arable fields have ‘wild edges’ filled with wildflowers and invertebrates.”

This may be more challenging on small farms, with every acre needed for food production. But another co-founder, Argus Hardy, says, “Restoring wildlife is “not stopping farming, it’s fitting farming systems into natural systems so we can restore biodiversity. It’s not rewilding, it’s making things wilder – not to create space for nature but to find out how we live inside the ecosystem.”

Farms cover over three quarters of East Anglia, so wilding only one percent of them makes the 20 percent target very ambitious. To achieve it could mean reducing the area of land farmed. One way to get more food from less land is for people to eat less meat: plants take less space to produce the same protein and calories as meat and dairy. Sir David Attenborough says, “If we had a mostly plant-based diet we could increase the yield of the land. We have an urgent need for free land… Nature is our biggest ally.” In East Anglia it would be a challenge as figures show that 84 percent of farmland is already producing crops rather than livestock. So changing from meat production to crops to free up land for wilding may be easier in other UK regions with less arable farming.

Wilders’ lead the debate

‘Wilders’ are already trying to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crises’ worst effects. Changes to all our lifestyles will be necessary, but it will be a slow process and farmers must be on board with it. The consequences of wilding, or not wilding, need to be made clear.

Rewilding Essex
Rewilding Essex. Photo by Jacob Spinks on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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