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rewilding dot eco my vision for this rewilding project simon wilkes
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    My long-term vision for this rewilding project

    If I had to put a number on it, I’d say I find myself thinking about fields at least 3 times per day. Now, I don’t mean any old field – far from it. The image I conjure up in my mind has sweeping meadows of green flecked with vibrant colour, lumbering mammals drinking from crystal-clear streams and the buoyant back-and-forth of birdsong.

    I have ideas upon ideas and schemes upon schemes which are all working towards the same thing: turning that dream into a reality. How long that’ll take remains to be seen. One thing I do know for certain – I’ll need a lot more than my original 100-hectare target, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why!

    Starting with 1 hectare

    Despite having an end goal firmly in mind, for a long time I’ve struggled with knowing where to start. No longer. All of my meticulously designed plans are now ready to go and, in a surprising turn of events (to me), some of them are already in motion.

    Even though it’s a long way off, I’m already wrestling with the first difficult decision. I’d originally thought about buying 1 hectare, then 10, then finally the remaining 89 taking the total to a cool 100 hectares. The main problem with that approach is there’s no guarantee they’d all be in the same place.

    After mulling it over and making a few enquiries, I believe the best way forward would be to save up a chunk of cash and buy all of the land in one swoop. This, of course, brings its own set of problems. First and foremost, it’ll take years to stockpile that much money. Most likely decades.

    Putting that aside, the biggest issue for me personally is one of trust. I keep thinking about this from an outside point of view – there’s no guarantee I won’t run off with the cash and buy a jet ski or blow it all on crypto, right?

    In order to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to buy 1 hectare of land which can be used as a testing ground for the larger rewilding project. To be clear, I won’t be using anything made from the jam – this’ll be with my own money… as soon as I can afford it.

    Small-scale rewilding experiment

    Let’s get hypothetical. Once I’ve actually got the first hectare, what exactly do I intend on doing? Unsurprisingly, I have a few ideas I’d like to try out.

    What I’m most excited about are hedgerows. We drive past them all the time, yet few people realise how important these ‘reservoirs of life’ are in terms of supporting biodiversity and storing carbon.

    It saddens me each year to see mile after mile of hedgerow being shaved the bone. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the efficiency – the traditional method of hedge laying can be gruelling, especially in bad weather – and with so many cars zipping around, dawdling branches scratching up people’s paintwork would undoubtedly be a headache.

    Even so, I’d like to try and increase the density of the hedgerows under my care. Not only do flowering plants like ivy, honeysuckle and crab apple trees attract a wide range of insects – by mingling together they create better cover and therefore better protection for birds and a wide variety of mammals.

    It took me a lot longer than I’d care to admit to realise that there’s two dormice in this picture. Image via Robert Wolton.

    What’ll happen with the actual slab of land itself will really depend on its history. I’d love to create a microcosm with a pond and a small area of woodland, perhaps eventually some free-roaming herbivores munching on wildflowers – though it’ll ultimately depend on things like the quality of the soil and also what the land supported before mankind imparted their will upon it.

    On a personal level, I’d also like to get a feel for the process so that it’s not as daunting to do on a larger scale. A little bit like going for a light jog, finding it manageable and then running an ultramarathon the following day. No big deal.

    Successful reintroduction of keystone species

    For anyone that’s unfamiliar with the world of rewilding, one of the biggest success stories happened right here in the UK at Knepp Wildlands in West Sussex. An incredible 1,400 hectares of former arable and dairy farmland were transformed – almost entirely by nature – into a functioning ecosystem with a mosaic of different habitats. Many different rare and endangered species have since been spotted at the project.

    I’d like to follow in their footsteps and create something similar.

    From reading Wilding by Isabella Tree (which tells the story of the rewilding ‘experiment’ at Knepp), a key factor was the introduction of free-roaming grazing animals. Cattle, pigs, ponies and deer act as proxies for herbivores that would’ve been chomping their way across the land thousands of years ago. Their natural behaviour – eating, uprooting and yes, defecating – boosts biodiversity and creates a more complete ecosystem.

    A herd of longhorn cattle roaming around Knepp. Image via Knepp Castle Estate.

    Animals (also plants, fungi and even bacteria) which have such a significant positive impact have since become known as keystone species. Unfortunately, some keystone species like the tarpan (wild horse) and auroch (wild ancestor of domestic cattle) are now extinct – which is why rewilding initiatives including Knepp are using substitute species like Exmoor ponies and longhorn cattle.

    There are many other keystone species which, although hunted to extinction in the UK many years ago, still exist elsewhere. I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn that efforts are now well underway to bring them back to our shores!

    Two recent success stories are the reintroduction of the European bison and the Eurasian beaver.

    Bison had been absent from the UK for thousands of years before they were brought to the ‘Wilder Blean’ site in Kent. There’s currently 5 (at the time of writing), however there’s hope the vast woodland will support growing numbers in the future – especially with a bull joining the herd just before Christmas.

    Rangers at Wilder Blean had no idea the bison was pregnant when it arrived. Image via Donovan Wright.

    Wild beavers were reintroduced to Scotland in 2009, 400 years after they were hunted to extinction in the UK. The 5-year trial was ‘an outstanding success’ and paved the way for a re-emergence of the beaver in England. The aquatic architects provide a plethora of positive environmental benefits, such as creating new mosaic habitats, reducing pollution and alleviating the effects of flooding.

    When I’m daydreaming, I imagine different mammals like beavers and bison, as well as birds and fish all bumbling around together – almost like a Beatrix Potter story. I think we’re still a long way away from reintroducing top predators like the Eurasian wolf or lynx, so they’d have a relatively peaceful existence. As long as there’s enough room.

    How much land do you need to rewild successfully?

    I’ve had a seed of doubt lodged firmly in the back of my mind which questioned whether I was dramatically underestimating how much land was needed to make my dreams a reality. I can’t cram a load of different species into a few fields and expect them to work miracles. It wouldn’t be fair.

    My first port of call was to have a look at the size of some other rewilding projects, of which there are many. The Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands, for example, is set in approximately 6,000 hectares only 20 miles from Amsterdam. A little closer to home, the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Scottish Highlands is on a staggering 9,500 hectares.

    The Alladale Wilderness Reserve. I’ve been told size doesn’t matter. Image via Fish and Pips.

    If the original target of 100 hectares is too small, how much should I aim for? A thousand? Ten thousand!? I know one thing for sure – if I keep throwing zeros at the size of this rewilding project then I’ll need infinitely more to pay for it all.

    Before too long I’d found what I was looking for. The magic number for large-scale rewilding projects is upwards of 1,500 acres (607 hectares), making it easier to restore the bigger natural processes and minimise human intervention. Grade 3 land (meaning good to moderate quality) currently costs on average £6,300 per acre, meaning a 1,500-acre site would cost £9.5 million.

    This information almost immediately sent me into a spiral of despair. It’s so much money. Then with land values constantly increasing and all the other costs involved (such as paying for all the rewilding work), I couldn’t see a world where this would cost less than £20 million.

    I spent the next couple of weeks thinking about that number. Twenty million pounds. What’s worse is I didn’t feel as though I could talk about it with anyone because that’s an obscene amount of money and I didn’t want people to laugh in my face and tell me my dream was now all but impossible.

    Unless… it’s not? I reasoned that it ultimately comes down to perspective – £20 million is only 2% of £1 billion and we live in a time when there’s more billionaires than ever before. There’s no doubt in my mind that I can scrape together a measly £20 million.

    Update 22/1/2023: Some welcome good news – this project may be considerably more affordable than I first thought. A community group in the Scottish town of Langholm raised £6 million over approximately 3 years to buy an incredible 10,500 acres (4,249 hectares) which works out to roughly £573 per acre. That’s over 10 times less expensive than the previously mentioned cost of £6,300 per acre.

    What I’m also thinking is that if I was able to raise a similar amount of money, or better yet still achieve the £20 million pound target, I could perhaps create a nature reserve 10 times the size of my original goal. Or, more exciting still, create 10 similarly sized nature reserves and then work to connect them all together!

    Connecting habitats with wildlife corridors

    Once I’ve raised the money, bought the land and successfully rewilded it all – what then? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider that a job well done, pat myself on the back and have a celebratory cup of tea. Maybe even a slab of lemon drizzle cake.

    Although I will definitely enjoy that moment when it eventually rolls around, creating this rewilding project is only the beginning.

    To borrow a line from the aforementioned Wilding book, rewilding the land and nothing more would be like creating an oasis in a desert. It’s only beneficial if you can actually get to it and hedgehogs (as well as many other species) unfortunately don’t have wings. Without a way for wildlife to access our nature reserve, we aren’t really doing anything to combat the key issue of habitat fragmentation.

    A fox unafraid to roam the city streets. Image via Simon Withyman.

    Habitat fragmentation occurs when a large habitat is broken up into smaller, disconnected habitats. Although this can happen naturally, it’s usually as a result of human activity, such as building new roads, agricultural expansion or housing developments. To drive this point home, a 2019 report found that human activity is responsible for the current 1 million plant and animal species facing extinction and habitat fragmentation plays a huge role in that figure.

    Obviously, as human beings we aren’t going to stop building houses or growing crops. That’s like asking water not to be wet. What we can do instead is try to minimise the impact through wildlife corridors – areas of natural land which can reconnect habitats across a landscape.

    Wildlife corridors can be anything from large expanses of woodland to hedgerows and roadside verges or even a scruffy patch of your own back garden. This’ll be what I spend the rest of my days working on once we’ve got our rewilding project up and running.

    There’s one thing in particular that’s on my rewilding bucket list – a green bridge.

    One of the few green bridges found in the UK. This one’s over the A556 in Cheshire. Image via Highways England.

    A green bridge is essentially a wildlife corridor that goes over a road or railway, which can stop species from becoming isolated and reduce the number of traffic accidents. They’re common in Europe and North America however are in woefully short supply here in the UK. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    National Highways, who are responsible for England’s motorways and major roads, recently announced they’ve joined forced with The Wildlife Trusts on a £6 million ‘Network for Nature’ program. They’re investigating a pilot scheme to convert a pedestrian bridge into a green bridge, which on the face of it at least promising.

    When I had a look to see if any other green bridges had been recently built, all I could find was the planned transformation of a road near Stonehenge which includes plans for 4 green bridges. This was announced in 2015 and, as of January 2023, is currently being held up by the usual self-serving parliamentary nonsense.

    I don’t know if I’ll be able to build one any faster than the government but that certainly isn’t going to stop me from trying.

    Forging a rewilding legacy… with jam

    Writing this blog post has felt like gawking through the windows of a supercar showroom. They all look very cool and, for a second, I like the idea of nipping to the corner shop in some bright-orange, snarling monstrosity. Then I keep walking and quickly forget all about it.

    If I want this project to be more than casual daydreams about fields, I’m going to need money – a lot of money – and to get it I’m going to make jam.

    The plan is simple: for every jar sold I’m going to set aside 50p towards the funding goal of £20 million. Yes, I have done the maths on this and no, I don’t intend to try and sell 40 million jars of jam. At least not in my lifetime.

    What I’d like to do is build a brand which can grow and continue to support this rewilding project, and potentially others, long after I’m gone. A brand that will endure.

    Ideally, I’d like to do as much as possible ourselves – grow crops, make products, process orders – so that on top of raising money we’re also creating jobs (in whatever geographic location this project ends up being) and therefore contributing to the local economy.

    This isn’t a radical or even original approach, though I personally believe it to be a necessary one. I’ve had many conversations about my rewilding goals and more often than not the idea of setting up a charity is suggested. I did consider it – and actually believe it would’ve been the easiest route – though ultimately decided against it for a few different reasons.

    There are a lot of worthwhile charities out there and unfortunately some not so worthwhile ones. Regardless of the work that they do, or say that they do, I don’t see any reason for an employee of a charity to be taking home a 7-figure salary when virtually all the money comes from donations – but that’s just my opinion. Putting that aside, I don’t want to dilute the potential funding for charities that are genuinely doing good work.

    rewilding dot eco my vision for this rewilding project simon wilkes
    It’s hard to imagine putting a price on something this beautiful. Image via Simon Wilkes.

    The biggest issue is that of buying the land itself. Land has value – it is an appreciating asset, which means the longer it’s owned the more valuable it’s going to become. To me it just doesn’t feel right to accept donations and use other people’s money to buy a big chunk of land which I could then profit from for decades.

    Instead, it’s my hope that by selling things like jam I’m at least providing some value to the exchange. If you were going to buy jam anyway then why not buy a jar that’ll also help with rewilding? That way everyone wins.

    Final thoughts

    I’ve done a lot of waffling in this blog post, so here’s a quick recap: I want to create a rewilding nature reserve of at least 600 hectares, however it’s going to cost a lot of money so I’m going to start my own brand to fund the project.

    There’s one question I’ve not yet answered – why I’m doing this. Fortunately, this has come up a lot in the nearly 3 years since I set out on this path so I have an honest if somewhat simple answer.

    When I think about what’s happening to the environment – the loss of biodiversity, the implications of climate change and even the flagrant disregard we seem to have for nature in this country if the amount of litter is anything to go by – I always end up both annoyed and upset. To me, those feelings are an indication that I care. If I truly care about the environment and believe I’m capable of making a positive change, which I do, then I should at least try.

    Reading back over my words, I’m aware it seems as though I’m trivialising the scale of this rewilding project. I can say wholeheartedly that I’m not – I’m in this for the long haul. I see this as my life’s work, and although it’s going to take many years to complete, as the old saying goes, “trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”

    As always, if you’re interested in supporting what I’m trying to do then the best way would be to follow the social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) as well as signing up to the newsletter. Eventually it’ll be buying jam but that’s still a few months away – next up is recipe testing!

    Thanks for reading.

    Cheers, Andrew

    2 thoughts on “My long-term vision for this rewilding project”

    1. i bet all the billionaires in the world could solve the climate crisis if they wanted to and still have more than enough money in the bank !

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