Nature movement's 'wild edges' idea could help shape national policy

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper

Natural England chairman Tony Juniper said WildEast's 'wild edges' idea is among those being considered within national policy discussions - Credit: Natural England

An East Anglian idea to restore huge areas of wildlife habitat by expanding farmland hedges into "wild edges" could be rolled out across the country.

Nature movement WildEast says it was "thrilled" to learn that its cornerstone initiative had caught the attention of national policy-makers at Defra and Natural England.

Now its founders hope it will become part of new government schemes which will determine how environmental features will be funded across the nation's farmed landscapes in future.

The group was launched last year with the ambitious 50-year goal of restoring 20pc of the region's land to nature.

It estimates that 5pc of that total, or 62,500 hectares, could be achieved if all hedgerows were broadened into 10m-wide "wild edges" alongside field boundaries and other features.

Hedgerows can be expanded into "wild edges" to maximise their benefits to nature, says WildEast

Hedgerows can be expanded into "wild edges" to maximise their benefits to nature, says WildEast - Credit: Lizzie Emmett

Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, said the idea is among those being considered within the development of the national Nature Recovery Network (NRN), a central commitment in the government's 25-year Environment Plan.

"This idea of using hedgerows as a kind of a highway network for wildlife in the wider countryside is certainly one of the things that would help to deliver that NRN, alongside bigger and better-quality protected areas, and landscape-scale conservation initiatives of the kind that are also envisaged as part of the ELMS (Defra's environmental land management scheme).

"These are all ideas that are on the table as we look towards the elaboration of the ELMS policy, which is, of course, a Defra policy lead.

"We are advisers to that, and certainly will be highlighting the value of hedgerows, including thicker and wilder ones, effectively linking up patches of scrub that are in the landscape in order to do that critical job of increasing connectivity."

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Mr Juniper said the idea could have particular value in arable-dominated areas like East Anglia, where hedgerows "have a particular premium value for wildlife connectivity".

He also praised WildEast for bringing a "very welcome new energy to the conservation scene in the East of England". 

"One of the things I sense, as a long-serving conservationist, is how there is this enormous desire to do more, and people already doing more coming from the landowning and farming community," he said.

"That evident upwelling of energy and enthusiasm is really important, and WildEast is bringing a very important part of that energy to the table."

A Defra spokesman added: “We are making great strides towards our 25-year Environment Plan ambition to develop a Nature Recovery Network which complements and connects our best wildlife sites.

“Hedges are an important part of the fabric of the farmed countryside, providing an essential home for wildlife that also helps species to move by connecting habitats across the landscape. We welcome initiatives that contribute to developing the Nature Recovery Network across East Anglia and beyond."

WildEast's founding trustees (from left) Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy

WildEast's founding trustees (from left) Ollie Birkbeck, Hugh Somerleyton and Argus Hardy - Credit: Mark Cator

WildEast is working with mapping firm The Land App to quantify the exact amount of habitat restoration that could be achieved by creating wild edges - centred on the hedgerow network, but also including rivers, ponds, ditches and footpaths.

The company is currently modelling the impact of adding a wild buffer to existing landscape features, using public data held by the Rural Payments Agency and Ordnance Survey.

WildEast said the "compelling" initiative was built on pre-existing networks connecting farms, villages and towns, with the the potential to create "great cathedrals of biodiversity" which could also help restore soils and store millions of tonnes of carbon.

Speaking on behalf of WildEast's founding trustees, Hugh Somerleyton, of the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft, said: "We were inspired by the great work which Natural England has done on the Nature Recovery Network, so to have learned now that one of our central pillars, wild edges, is being considered within that framework is enormously exciting.

"We have much hope that it becomes nationally adopted and a key cornerstone of nature recovery, not just in our region, but the whole country."

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