An ambitious nature restoration project aiming to recreate and reconnect precious habitats across north Norfolk's coastal landscape has entered its crucial next phase.

The "North Norfolk: Wilder, Wetter, Better for Nature" project is a pilot for the government's new "landscape recovery" scheme - the top tier of the new environmental incentives being devised to replace EU subsidies, which are being phased out after Brexit.

A project meeting at Deepdale Farm in Burnham Deepdale was told that "bold action" and joined-up thinking was needed to reconnect wildlife "islands" within the farmed landscape, and inspire nature recovery in key coastal habitats and protected chalk rivers.

A collaboration of 36 land managers and farmers - working with conservationists and public authorities - are being asked to identify strategic plots of land to target these efforts and to help form the new policies.

The meeting was told that data from a major biodiversity audit, launched in 2021, was the catalyst for the pilot, which was approved in September 2022 as one of the top three projects in the country.

Now it has secured £633,000 of funding for its two-year "project development phase", to produce detailed landscape management plans to be implemented from 2025.

It aims to identify about 1,500 hectares of new habitat within the Norfolk Coast AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), through tailored individual plans developed by each landowner.

Two-thirds is in the coastal strip north of the A149 between Hunstanton and Sheringham, with the rest situated alongside five chalk rivers - The Hun, Stiffkey, Glaven, Burn and Weybourne Beck.

The ultimate ambition is to create 13,470ha of "continuous habitat", which can benefit priority species including natterjack toads, spoonbills, grayling butterflies, barbastelle bats and turtle doves.

Eastern Daily Press:  Dr Katy Owen, protected landscapes manager at Norfolk County Council, speaking at the north Norfolk landscape recovery pilot project meeting Dr Katy Owen, protected landscapes manager at Norfolk County Council, speaking at the north Norfolk landscape recovery pilot project meeting (Image: Newsquest)

Dr Katy Owen, protected landscapes manager at Norfolk County Council and landscape recovery lead for north Norfolk, said: "This is an opportunity for farmers to be part of designing a brand new approach to land management, which is an opportunity we haven’t had before.

"We’re not asking anyone to commit to signing up to anything yet, but we really want farmers to feed in their ideas, so we can tell Defra what works for the people managing this landscape, and make sure their views shape the future of land management along this coast.

"We want to be really strategic about making space for nature in a working landscape. At the moment, we have these isolated patches of habitat across the AONB – a wildlife reserve here, some ancient woodland there, a floodplain over here. The project is about how can we connect these ‘islands’ of nature together in a way that makes sense for wildlife and farmers.

"It is not about putting in an arbitrary hedgerow or a small margin at the side of a field. If that doesn’t make sense for you, let's do something different that makes a real and significant positive impact for nature on the Norfolk coast.

Eastern Daily Press: A major 'landscape recovery' project is under way to boost nature habitats across the north Norfolk coast. Pictured: Deepdale FarmA major 'landscape recovery' project is under way to boost nature habitats across the north Norfolk coast. Pictured: Deepdale Farm (Image: Chris Hill)

"We want this to be a co-creation process, rather than the more usual 'top-down' approach. It’s about farmers identifying the land that they want to put forward for this scheme, and working with us over the next two years to design a land management plan they can sign up to - something that is designed by them, rather than applied to them."

Although the project involves taking marginal land in strategic areas "out of food production and into nature production", she stressed: "It is about making space for nature in an agricultural landscape - not making an agricultural landscape into a nature reserve.

"We want to develop a sustainable future for the Norfolk Coast, where nature, food production and rural economies can thrive side by side."

Eastern Daily Press: SpoonbillsSpoonbills (Image: David Thacker / iWitness24)

One of the key landowners in the project is the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate, whose head of conservation, Jake Fiennes, also spoke at the meeting.

"We have got a lot of people involved in this, from farmers to landowners to ecologists to environmentalists," he said. "The North Norfolk Coast AONB has over six million visitors a year and they will see the landscape change, they will also see the benefit.

"I am of the firm belief that we can have this balance, that we can have nature, food, farming, and people sitting alongside each other without having a significant detriment to the overall productivity of agriculture in Norfolk."

Eastern Daily Press: A wetland project at Warham near WellsA wetland project at Warham near Wells (Image: John Ebbage, Natural England)

Other partners in the project include Defra, Natural England, Norfolk Rivers Trust, and the Norfolk Coast Partnership.

At the end of the two-year development phase, a landscape management plan will be submitted to Defra along with an estimate of the budget needed for its implementation and annual management.

The final cost is expected to be funded partly by the government, and partly through private investment leveraged through initiatives such as biodiversity net gain.