September 25, 2022

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‘Once in a generation’ scheme to restore nature in 22 areas across England | Wildlife

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Ambitious schemes by farmers and landowners to restore nature and reduce flooding while still producing food will be supported by the government in 22 locations across England.

The landscape recovery scheme is being hailed by land managers and conservationists as the most “exciting and important” step in a generation to restore lost biodiversity.

Projects include recreating water meadows in the Cotswolds, reviving eel-rich waterways in the Severn Valley, and restoring Enfield Chase on the edge of London.

Jake Fiennes, the conservation director of the Holkham estate, one of the landowners behind a plan to create 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of wildlife-rich habitat along the north Norfolk coast, said: “We’re excited, we’re ambitious and this could be the start of 30-year conservation covenants. This is a long-term commitment to biodiversity and all the public goods that are spelled out in the government’s 25-year environment plan.”

A waterway being created for migrating birds on the Holkham estate in Norfolk. Photograph: Si Barber/the Guardian

The environment secretary, George Eustice, who announced the scheme, said: “There has been significant interest from farmers and land owners in coming together on landscape-scale projects to manage environmental assets on their land.”

There has been nervousness within government about committing to the scheme before the arrival of the next prime minister, who is expected to emphasise food production and food security over environmental restoration.

But Fiennes said the scheme was a farmer-led demonstration that reviving nature was not opposed to food production but a precondition for it.

“Food production is a crucial part of the Norfolk coast project,” he said. “When we talk about the creation of species-rich hay meadows – hay meadows are agriculture. When we talk about the production of plentiful unpolluted fresh water – agriculture requires fresh water to produce food. It’s about identifying the right crop for the right place and the right farm system for the right field.”

Fiennes said people were just as much part of the scheme as nature: “The key is that this is a collaboration with farmers. What I find really encouraging about this is that it is farmers, landowners and environmental NGOs working together on solutions that work at a local landscape level, because what’s happening in the Cotswolds or Wigan is unique to that landscape so we can design something that’s fit for purpose and fit for the future.”

The landscape recovery scheme is one of three strands of the new environmental land management scheme (Elms), which the government is introducing over the next seven years to help farmers transition from EU subsidies.

Prof Alastair Driver, a director at Rewilding Britain, said: “Restoring whole landscapes is the most significant, cost-effective and sustainable way to achieve major nature recovery. So this landscape recovery funding is one of the most important environmental policies for England in a generation, and is where Elms could really have a huge impact.

Pine marten
Pine martens are among the endangered animals that projects could help to restore in England. Photograph: Mark Hamblin/2020 Vision/Devon Wildlife Trust/PA

“The inclusion of so many rewilding sites in the mix of pilot projects is very good news. Many of the 70-plus large rewilding projects in Rewilding Britain’s rewilding network are showing clearly that rewilding already works well alongside food production, while offering a wealth of public goods, and benefits for farmers and communities such as employment, education and health.”

Each of the 22 projects covers an area of between 500 and 5,000 hectares. Collectively, the projects aim to restore nearly 430 miles (700km) of rivers and revive 263 species including water vole, otter, pine marten, lapwing, great crested newt, European eel and marsh fritillary.

Most involve groups of farmers, tenant farmers and land managers including charities such as the RSPB working together to deliver environmental benefits across farmed and rural landscapes – improving soils, flood alleviation and water retention, and increasing biodiversity.

On the Norfolk coast, dozens of farmers will work together to identify marginal farmland that could better be used to “farm” nature, with projects to restore the health of four chalk streams in the region – the Glaven, Stiffkey, Burn and Hun – and the wetlands around them.

Target species that the Norfolk scheme aims to revive include the declining grayling butterfly, the spoonbill – recently arrived as a breeding bird in the region – the natterjack toad, the barbastelle bat and the turtle dove, a bird on the brink of extinction in Britain.

Fiennes said the project would involve reassessing whether a field that grew poor yields of winter wheat might work better as a wildflower-rich grassland that could produce food via livestock grazing and also plentiful supplies of rare flowers and invertebrates.

The government is supporting the 22 schemes with £12m over a two-year “development” phase to fund baseline surveys, investigate business partnerships and obtain necessary permissions to rewiggle streams, for instance.

Natural England and the Environment Agency are overseeing the projects but each one is expected to find its own funding and private money, with the possibility – but no guarantee – of further financial backing from the government.

Public benefits offered by large-scale restoration include carbon storage, drought mitigation, reduced flooding, and improved water quality. A Rewilding Britain study of rewilding projects in England found a 65% increase in jobs and a surge in volunteering opportunities on the land.

Fiennes said: “Here are opportunities for businesses and corporations to get involved in delivering landscapes for the benefit of people and nature. It’s exciting – let’s ensure that everyone is part of the solution.”

Michael Copleston, interim director of RSPB England, said the charity was “thrilled” to be working with farmers and local communities to recover some of England’s most important landscapes.

“To halt the catastrophic loss of habitats and species in England we need to act at a landscape scale, and the Landscape Recovery pilots are a crucial opportunity to get this right,” he said. “These projects will not only deliver thousands of hectares of nature rich habitats, but also a significant range of public goods including carbon sequestration, reduced flood risk, improved public access and levelling-up investment in rural communities.”

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