Farmers and landowners shouldn’t wait for the government to fund all their nature conservation ambitions – and consumers must also be prepared to change in order to help them reverse East Anglia’s wildlife “crisis”.

Eastern Daily Press: The WildEast project aims to restore wild nature habitats across East Anglia. Picture: Richard Brunton / iWitness24The WildEast project aims to restore wild nature habitats across East Anglia. Picture: Richard Brunton / iWitness24 (Image: (c) copyright

That was the message from the WildEast movement after sparking debates on how it’s ambitious 50-year goal of returning 250,000 hectares of land to nature could be achieved.

The project aims to become Britain’s first regional nature recovery project, asking everyone from farming estates to churchyards and backyard gardeners to pledge 20pc of their landscape to nature.

The WildEast launch last weekend prompted many online debates on social media, with recurring questions from the farming community including how the nation could continue to be fed if productive arable land was given up for wildlife, and how hard-pushed smaller farms could afford this amid the impending loss of EU subsidies, and the economic impact of market volatility, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

One Norfolk farmer tweeted: “Great idea but how does rewilding pay my bills, repay my loans and overdrafts, keep my nearest and dearest in the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to?”

In response, Hugh Somerleyton, owner of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft and one of three trustees behind WildEast, said he believed there was enough space for food production and the environment to co-exist, but it would require a change of approach to cropping allied to a dietary “culture change” among consumers to reduce the huge amounts of land devoted to livestock and animal feed.

While those are long-term goals, he said a WildEast pledge could immediately signal a “virtual” statement of intent, contributing to a collaborative landscape-scale effort which could be mapped and presented as a possible fundable option under the evolving new ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) policy, which will eventually replace the EU’s basic payment subsidies with a new system rewarding farmers for providing “public goods”.

But he urged farmers not to wait for the new scheme to arrive.

Lord Somerleyton said: “While ELMS is in its formative stage, we are asking people to pledge virtually so we have got something we can take to Natural England and say: ‘Look, since June 2020 we’ve got several hundred farmers here who are ideologically pledged’, then it gives them a clear signal of what exactly to fund. It is a really compelling thing for us as a region to show we are ready to do that by the time ELMS starts.

“Some people may feel they can afford to do that now, but for those who are really keen, who feel ethically it is right but are worried about the economic impact, then instead of waiting for ELMS let’s show what we can do collectively, and that we are ready to put 20pc of our land back, and allow that to become a super-scale ELMS project that they can then fund. It is unlikely the government will fund all 20pc of it, but I think whatever you qualify for should get paid for.

“We also need to ask, is it ultimately the government’s job to fund nature in our landscapes? Isn’t it our job, the farmers’ job? I would argue that it probably is.

“What we all have to accept is that as farmers we’ve been grant-funded quite handsomely to save nature, and despite everyone’s good intention and a lot of farmers busting a gut to farm nature well, the policy has failed. We haven’t saved nature, in fact it has catastrophically failed during that time.

“So if we are serious about our mission to restore nature we have to collectively give more. That means everyone – churchyards, back yards, but particularly farmers.

READ MORE: Wild ambition to turn East Anglia into one of the world’s greatest nature reserves“But – and this is really important – if farmers are going to give up land for nature then people have got to subsidise that effort by beginning to think about the way they do business, the way they travel, but particularly the way they consume to allow that square to be circled. We all need to be prepared to change.”

Lord Somerleyton said his estate was looking at how it could pledge 20pc of its 1,500 arable acres, including mapping the “wedges” created by uneven hedges.

“It’s a mindset,” he said. “As a cereal grower, it [rewilding] is not going to affect your business as much as you might think because your costs drop. In my case we’re talking about potentially 300 acres of land, some of that is already in a stewardship scheme, but when you look at the net value of your labour and your inputs against your top-line profit for your average yield, it is not as huge a margin as you’d think.”

Last Saturday, the same day as the WildEast launch, environmental group Rewilding Britain also said landowners should be able to claim payments for “rewilding” schemes under the post-Brexit ELMS policy.

Rewilding Britain director Alastair Driver said rewilding would fit in the top tier of ELMS, which will focus on landscape-scale projects, and said it was a “genuine serious option” for managing land alongside regenerative or intensive farming.

It can also help farmers diversify their income into areas including eco-tourism to make their businesses more resilient and less reliant on subsidies, he said, adding: “It’s time we got over this false hurdle of it being something scary.”