Norfolk farm fights climate change and impact of Brexit by rewilding
- Credit: Wild Ken Hill
More than 1,000 acres of farmland are being given back to nature in a bid to boost biodiversity and cut carbon emissions.
Large swathes of the Ken Hill Estate, between Snettisham and Heacham, are being rewilded.
They include an expanse of woodland west of the main A149 coast road, along with former arable land and reclaimed saltmarsh stretching down to the shores of The Wash.
The Buscall family, who have farmed the 4,000-acre estate since the 1870s, believe radical changes are needed to save both the environment and their industry.
Dominic Buscall, 27, who is the driving force behind the project, said: “We are rewilding around 1,000 acres for two reasons – to take a more radical approach in fighting the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis in the UK and to help insulate our business from the impact of Brexit.”
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Some believe our departure from the EU, along with its Common Agricultural Policy and subsidies, could bankrupt 50pc of farms.
While the coronavirus crisis has diverted attention away from Brexit, experts at the United Nations warn activities that harm the natural world such as deforestation, intensive farming, and exploitation of wild species have created a “perfect storm” for diseases to spill over from wildlife to people.
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Professors Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz and Eduardo Brondizio led a UN-backed global biodiversity assessment last year. Dr Peter Daszak is president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which aims to prevent pandemics and promote conservation.
They warn: “As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost.
“We have a small window of opportunity in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.
“Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill over of diseases from wildlife to people.”
Mr Buscall said over the next few years, vegetation will grow, invertebrate numbers increase, and other natural processes return to Ken Hill.
There are already dozens of species of rare birds and a critically-endangered bug on the site.
Most notable returnees are the beavers which have recently been released on the estate.
It is hoped their dams will help improve wetland habitat for other species by trapping silt, slowing run-offs and maintaining levels during dry spells.
“Alongside the beaver reintroduction conducted in Spring 2020, we hope to introduce wild cattle, ponies and pigs in 2021,” said Mr Buscall.
“We are currently building a fence around the perimeter of the rewilding area to allow this.
“On the rest of the site we also perform regenerative agriculture on around 1,500 acres – this is the next step of our farming journey – we are focused on improving soils and biodiversity whilst continuing to farm and actively managing areas of conservation interest including freshwater marshes.
“This means we are much more than a rewilding site. We actually have a three-prong approach of regenerative farming, rewilding, and active conservation management. This is a unique model in the UK and potentially a model that should be scaled up to other parts of lowland UK.”
Norfolk estates once led the way in agriculture. Charles “Turnip” Townshend founded the four crop rotation system at Raynham Hall in the early 1700s. Coke of Holkham pioneered new feeds and husbandry in the century that followed.
Now an agricultural revolution is under way at Ken Hill. Yet there will doubtless be those who will say beavers and bog plants are all very well – but where are we going to grow our food if we give half our land back to nature?
“The problem in the UK is not that we do not grow enough food,” said Mr Buscall. “We don’t grow the right food, we waste vast amounts of food (£13bn per year), and we do not distribute it fairly – household food insecurity has actually risen among the most vulnerable in society.
“Part of the answer is to grow a healthier, more diverse mix of food – currently 85pc of UK farmland is used to supply the meat processing industry.
“We need to use some of this land for vegetables, nuts, fruit, pulses, which can be grown, supplied and consumed locally, and typically require much less area.
“We also need to use more land to protect air quality, water quality, the environment, and nature with schemes like rewilding.”
Mr Buscall believes regenerative farming and rewilding could help stave off the impacts of climate change as well as boosting biodiversity.
He said that, in the future, parts of the rewilded area would be opened to the public.
“We are aiming to make the site more accessible whilst respecting and protecting nature,” he said.
“This will likely take the form of wildlife safaris and forms of accommodation such as tree-houses, which we think will be a great option for the many people that visit north-west Norfolk in the summer.”
Banks and channels have been dug on marshy areas to improve wetland habitat for wading birds like the curlew. Elsewhere minimal or zero-tillage farming methods are in use, along with natural fungicides and parasitic wasps to control insect pests.
A mission statement on Wild Ken Hill’s website explains: “Rather than following the harsh agricultural and forestry techniques that have contributed to record emissions and species loss, we want to show that land can be used to fight climate change, to manage air and water quality, and as a space for nature and people.
“In the process, we hope to demonstrate the power of a rewilding approach, both as a tool for environmental good, but also as a way for farmers to reinvigorate their businesses.”