How rewilding and regenerative farming could future-proof our land
- Credit: Wild Ken Hill
A 30ft poplar tree came crashing to the ground after the first beavers to return to Norfolk in centuries sank their teeth into it.
Elsewhere, the animals have encouraged nature to return in droves as they shape the woods around them.
Last year four of the creatures - two males and two females - were introduced to Ken Hill, a patchwork of fields, heath and woodland which descends to the marshes between Heacham and Snettisham.
The beavers are spearheading an ambitious rewilding project which aims to turn 1,000 acres - around a quarter of the estate - back over to nature.
Andrew Waddison, who works for the estate, is the animals' evangelist.
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"This used to be just a dry area with a stream running through," he says as we peer into the fenced enclosure that is now their home. "They've built dams all over it already. In the space of six months we've seen water voles, dragon flies and damsel flies."
While the mainly nocturnal beavers are keeping a low profile, there are tell-tale signs of their activity everywhere. Inside the fence, the creatures' tails have worn a track as they drag along the ground. Tree cover is punctuated by gnawed trunks and piles of bark chippings.
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Another poplar has been ring-barked, meaning it will die, rot and fall over the coming months or maybe years, in what Mr Waddison calls "a long-term investment" in terms of the animals' food supply.
Could beavers and re-wilding be the long-term investment our woodlands need to future-proof them? A new report warns our woods are approaching crisis point in the face of a "barrage" of threats including habitat damage, climate change and nitrogen pollution.
Just 7pc of our native woodland is in a good ecological condition according to the Woodland Trust, which is calling for our ancient woodlands to be restored alongside initiatives to plant new ones.
The trust's director of conservation and external affairs Abi Bunker said: "If we don't tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK's ability to address the climate and nature crises."
Wildlife that makes its home in woods have seen steep declines, with woodland birds down 29pc since 1970, butterflies declining 41pc since 1990 and plants down by 18pc since 2015, the report warns.
Beavers, which were hunted to extinction for their fur five centuries ago, are a keystone species which creates wetland habitat for voles and otters, coppices trees to provide shrubby cover and improves water quality.
On the hill that overlooks the beavers' domain, furrows have been gouged through the woodland floor by Tamworth pigs, introduced as part of what the estate calls "a light touch approach" to managing nature's recovery.
"Where you see the earth turned over that's the pigs looking for grubs and roots," said Mr Waddison. "Where we've taken the odd tree down to let more light, you can see young shoots coming through."
Exmoor ponies and red poll cattle graze alongside the pigs. Wildflowers are returning to the woodland glades, as well as the fields west of the main coast road. Last year, the land was ablaze with poppies.
Hedges are no longer cut and fields which are still farmed have generous margins and a regenerative regime, where pesticides and the plough are abandoned in favour of companion planting and allowing fungi, bacteria and worms to enrich the soil. Ploughing releases carbon while rich, natural soil absorbs it.
Project manager Dom Buscall, whose family have farmed Ken Hill for generations, said: "In 2018, we decided to create the Wild Ken Hill project by rewilding 1,000 acres, improving our freshwater marshes, and performing regenerative agriculture on our farmland. We wanted to create a national exemplar that demonstrated how land can be simultaneously used to grow food, boost biodiversity and fight climate change, whilst also making a profit.
"Key aspects of the project are funded by Natural England, but importantly, the project is actually supporting our business to grow. We are making better margins with regenerative farming, and capturing new opportunities in eco-tourism and natural capital, allowing us to create new jobs and help the local economy."
The latter will see part of the site become a leisure destination with food and retail, like nearby Drove Orchards, at Thornham. Longer-term, there are plans to re-introduce the white-tailed eagle.
Guided tours are now on offer, where visitors can see the transformation of the landscape at first hand. Places can be booked at https://wildkenhill.co.uk/.