Buffaloes, ponies and pigs roam free in lakeside rewilding scheme
- Credit: Danielle Booden
Water buffaloes, Highland cattle, ponies and pigs are roaming free as part of a 1,000-acre project to recreate natural ecosystems alongside Fritton Lake.
The release of the animals is a crucial phase in the re-wilding project at the Somerleyton Estate, near Lowestoft.
About 9km of fencing, along with cattle grids and gates, have been built to surround this mosaic of heath, damp mature woodland, alder carr, and sandy former arable land which has been left to gradually revert to its natural state.
To complete the pre-industrial picture, large grazing animals have now been introduced, including four water buffaloes, 16 Highland cattle, 16 Exmoor ponies, and 12 Large Black pigs.
The idea is that these hardy herbivores will act as natural landscape engineers – grazing, browsing and bark-stripping to create space for smaller animals to thrive, working alongside the estate's resident population of deer to sculpt varied layers of foliage.
Estate owner Hugh Somerleyton, who is also a founding trustee of nature movement WildEast, said the release of the animals was the culmination of a long-held ambition to improve the prospects for wildlife by recreating the landscape as it would have been thousands of years ago, before mankind's interference.
"What we have all forgotten is that animals have moved indoors in more industrial farming, but actually their function in the landscape, whether wild or farmed, was that they all perform what might now be called an ecosystem service," he said.
"Some are grazers, some are browsers, some do a bit of both and in a naturalistic habitat they act as a suite of animals, where each part is important to create the best possible conditions for the maximum amount of biodiversity.
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"Without them you would have quite a silent and sterile environment. But if you bring animals in, which going back thousands of years would have been totally normal, immediately the whole place begins to burst into life.
"We know that given time this land will end up with gorse, birch, heather, native grasses and wildflowers, then eventually successional oak will come through and bramble.
"But the important difference is, because of the animals, it won't just be a woodland, it will be a mosaic. That is the key word. You don't want it to be just one thing, you want a whole host of different things, and you want it at all stages of a lifecycle."
On one field, which was farmed until five years ago, oak and birch saplings are already starting to emerge, but the lack of grazing animals means bracken has become the dominant species, creating a "carpet" which makes it difficult for other species to flourish.
"If you bring in pigs they start to rootle and eat the bracken roots, break up the dominance of the bracken, then grasses, heather, tree saplings, bramble, gorse all come back in," said Lord Somerleyton.
Farm manager Rob Raven said the rewilding scheme had offered a viable alternative use for light sandy land which would be difficult to farm profitably.
"It is pretty marginal land by arable standards," he said. "You could grow barley and a couple of other crops here, but it is not hugely profitable to do so on land that does not have any inherent fertility. So really the rewilding is a good alternative.
"We are into a stewardship scheme now where we do get some [financial] support for reverting from arable into some of these options, and then we have got the livestock on here which will generate an income.
"So I really think we are getting ahead of the game in finding a secure way of making income on this land, particularly with subsidy reform coming in, which will make it even harder to farm profitably on marginal land."
Lord Somerleyton added that by stopping farming around the fringes of Fritton Lake, it could help prevent agricultural run-off and water pollution, while also adding to the tourism appeal of the area, with nature "safaris" planned this summer.
And in the longer-term there are plans to introduce European Bison - "the apex herbivore" of the rewilding world - and a licence application has been submitted to reintroduce beavers too.
"It will be a really exciting addition to the suite of animals, in particular around the west end of the lake where it floods out, to hold up water and create lots of different water habitats," he said. "So paddle-boarding is going to become a whole lot more interesting on Fritton Lake."