Wild ambition to turn East Anglia into one of the world’s greatest nature reserves
PUBLISHED: 08:58 13 June 2020 | UPDATED: 14:26 13 June 2020
Erwin Van Maanen
A wildly ambitious 50-year project has been launched to make East Anglia “one of the world’s great nature reserves” – by inspiring every section of our society to pledge 20pc of their landscape to wildlife.
WildEast aims to become Britain’s first regional nature recovery project, returning 250,000 hectares of land to nature, and potentially seeing the reintroduction of species such as beavers, bison and the Eurasian lynx – which has become the symbol of the organisation.
The core ambition is to reverse the alarming declines in insect, mammal and bird life and restore natural abundance to levels not seen since the 1970s.
Central to this goal is the “WildEast Pledge”, challenging everybody to devote “20pc of whatever we have” to nature projects, whether they are farmers, industrial estates, supermarkets, housing estates, churchyards, allotments, schools or individuals in their own back gardens.
The target is for a million people to have joined the movement and made a pledge by 2025, while big businesses and government agencies will be asked to pledge to create ecological infrastructure such as “green bridges” for wildlife to cross major roads.
Over time, it is hoped the project will gather momentum and become a catalyst for change on a landscape scale – educating children, reconnecting the public with nature and uniting fragmented conservation agencies, farmers, businesses communities and individuals to create a trusted conservation and food accreditation brand, making the WildEast an exemplar “regional nature economy”.
The landowners and conservationists behind WildEast say the region has the potential rival the world’s great ecosystems, but this will require a “culture change” to shift opinions about nature, farming practices and diets – and it needs to include everyone.
The project is being driven by three trustees including Hugh Somerleyton, owner of Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft, where a 1,000-acre “re-wilding” project is under way on land surrounding Fritton Lake.
Lord Somerleyton said WildEast was borne out of the frustration that, despite the successes of wildlife bodies and conservation-minded farmers, “complicated but well-intended” environmental funding policies have failed to reverse the “precipitous decline” in the region’s wildlife.
“We have been well paid as farmers to ‘save nature’ and the good British public have poured money into conservation agencies – both those sets of people have tried their best and have in some cases have had tremendous success but they are very fragmented and increasingly we have come to view that nature lives ‘over there in that reserve’ and not ‘over here where I live’,” he said.
“We have become an island of islands for nature and that simply cannot restore any of these key metrics for mammals, birds or insects.
“We need everyone to be engaged, we need allotments, churchyards, backyards and farmyards all doing their bit for nature rather than just a Wildlife Trust reserve or a big farming estate, which are no less important.
“We are looking at an area of 1.25 million hectares. Not only does that make us an area as grand in scale and vision alongside any of the great conservation projects around the world, but it underlines the point that this scale of thinking is exactly what is missing from nature conservation in this country. We need to think on a bigger scale. There will be corridors running across that area and nature hotspots and we all need to be doing our bit to provide a better chance for all wildlife to be restored to abundance across that region.
“We want to be the voice for change in this area. We are proud East Anglians so we want to be the first region to grab this subject by the scruff and create change.”
The other trustees are Ollie Birkbeck a former soldier and journalist who now directs Little Massingham Estate, where he is putting restorative farming practices into place alongside the restoration of 500 acres of heathland nature reserve, and Argus Hardy, a Suffolk architect who comes from a family of naturalists, zoologists and farmers with strong links to nature conservation.
WildEast is seeking funding for its future plans to generate online educational resources and a schools roadshow, to build its accreditation schemes and communications channels, and to develop a WildEast app to allow everyone in the region to get involved, take the pledge and share interesting nature projects – while mapping progress towards the 250,000-hectare target.
As the project develops, WildEast will seek patrons, ambassadors, collaborators and commercial partners, and the organisation will also “reach out to gain major donations from both private and public sector sources to help secure pockets of pristine wilderness, wildlife corridors and other identifiable at-risk land assets”.
CONSERVATION AND FOOD PRODUCTION
The WildEast team hopes the pledge can become a viral social media phenomenon as people share pictures and videos of their contributions, or inspire people into action by seeing what is happening over their neighbour’s fence – but the lion’s share of the 20pc target will need to be met by larger farming and country estates.
Lord Somerleyton said: “The big pushback we get is ‘well, what about growing food’? That is absolutely fair. We are not a food self-sufficient nation and if we continue our addiction to cheap meat and dairy then we won’t be. That is the big cultural challenge.
“No-one is arguing about taking the very best land out of production. About 70pc of our farmable land is taken up in animal production and the cultural shift that already seems to be happening away from the diet that we have been used to will gather momentum over the next generation. We hope through WildEast we can push this region to be the first to hit on that fact and grasp these challenging subjects.”
SUPPORT FROM COUNTRYSIDE GROUPS
Countryside business and conservation groups in East Anglia applauded the ambitions of the WildEast project.
Rob Wise, East Anglia environment adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “Lord Somerleyton already has a great track record of operating his estate for environmental benefit and the ambition he has shown is admirable. We will be keen to learn more about the WildEast initiative and how this can mesh with other farmer and landowners’ goals and capabilities.
“Restoring nature can happen at all levels, from back gardens to large estates, and our members are already doing a great deal through agri-environment schemes and on a voluntary basis. The evolution of ELMS [the government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme which will replace the EU’s subsidy system] will be a great opportunity to support these ambitions, alongside private efforts.”
Pamela Abbott, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: “This ambitious project is very much in line with our own landscape-scale conservation work to bring more wildlife back across the whole of Norfolk, so that it can survive and thrive in a changing climate and in the face of many threats. We are working with farmers, landowners and local people who can all make a difference with their gardens or local path and are excited to see how Norfolk Wildlife Trust can be part of WildEast’s vision.”
Andrea Kelly,environment policy adviser for the Broads Authority, said: “We work to support ambitious nature recovery projects such as this, which create wonderful connected habitats for nature through hedgerows, woodlands and wetlands.
“Our recovery projects in the Broads collaborate with farmers and land managers, home owners, developers, residents, and visitors alike. The key to success is to ensure such projects support healthy ecosystems, tourism and vibrant local communities.
“In the Broads, we’ve lost six species each decade since 1950. Dynamic and bold management such as this will help direct future conservation efforts, especially as we adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Broads supports a quarter of the UK’s rarest wildlife within its 30,000 hectares – imagine what could be achieved with an additional 250,000.”
• For more details see the WildEast website.
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