Making space for agriculture and rewilding in England

Abigail Croker from Imperial College London and the BES English Policy Group tells us about opportunities to adopt rewilding practices across England’s agricultural countryside.

Photo of a pig in wildflowers

The UK consistently ranks in the bottom 10% of nations globally for biodiversity intactness, having lost more of its natural biodiversity than almost all Western European countries and all G7 nations. Approximately 15% of species assessed in the 2019 State of Nature report were threatened with extinction in Great Britain and many insect pollinators are rapidly declining, threatening agricultural productivity.

Processes of industrialisation and exploitation have transformed UK landscapes, driving a decline in farmland nature which has strongly contributed to a 41% decrease in species abundance since 1970. With agricultural land now extending over more than 70% of the UK, we must ask ourselves, what can we do to restore biodiversity across our landscapes?

Food for Thought

The UK and devolved governments are increasingly recognising the agricultural sector’s contribution to climate change and environmental breakdown, threatening both sustainable food production and biodiversity, as well as significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

In the transition towards being Nature Positive and meeting national climate and biodiversity commitments, the agricultural sector needs transformational change so that farmers, land managers, and landowners are incentivised and empowered to help meet these targets. Recently, notions of making land available for nature restoration through a reduction in livestock production has gained political attention.

The Government have been reluctant to suggest that the public eats less meat as it could be politically toxic. However, the clamour for change is growing, with pressure from environmental watchdogs who have criticised the farming sector for its significant contribution to terrestrial and freshwater pollution, and recommendations from advisory groups such as the Committee on Climate Change that we need to reduce our meat consumption by 20-50% to meet net zero emissions targets by 2050.

Photo of a cow behind a fence

It is possible to free up land for nature recovery without having a big impact on food security. The National Food Strategy (a Government-commissioned independent review of the food system) states that 85% of the domestic and overseas farmland that England relies upon is used for pasture and growing livestock feed. This makes livestock farming the nation’s single biggest contributor to land-use change and ecological degradation.

The National Food Strategy also shows that the cessation of livestock farming on 20% of the least productive land would only cause a 3% reduction in calories produced, whilst having significant positive consequences on long-term ecosystem health and functioning, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration.

Another way to implement ecological restoration while minimising conflict with food production is to change the land use of large sporting estates. Grouse and deer estates have come under increasing public scrutiny over their lack of commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting habitats. Some organisations have called for a green levy to be imposed on these estates, with the amount payable adjusted according to land type and size.

The Rewilding Response

Rewilding the British countryside to help achieve biodiversity targets has received a lot of attention in recent years. Headlines regarding England’s farmers being paid to rewild the countryside and restore natural habitats under post-Brexit agricultural policy changes are common and increasingly dominating agri-environmental discussions.

The term ‘rewilding’ is used in many different ways but it is generally understood as the restoration of an area of land to an uncultivated state to re-establish ecological functions and natural processes. It often includes the reintroduction of keystone species such as beavers, bison, and wolves to drive positive trophic cascades throughout the ecosystem.

More recently, we have experienced a “rewilding revolution“, characterised by the widespread adoption of reforestation projects and a growing awareness of the role of woodlands in carbon storage.

As rewilding becomes a “trendy buzzword that is often used indiscriminately“, landowners, farmers, and the public alike are increasingly mystified by the process. Some farmers believe that rewilding is a lack of farming, and that their practices of controlling and cultivating nature to produce economic services directly counter the process of letting nature take the lead. There are also concerns that rewilding implemented by wealthy individuals and organisations will push rural and farming communities off the land. In this uncertain space, where are farmers situated and are there ways for them to implement rewilding, or restore ecological processes at a landscape scale?

Photo of wildflowers

Rewilding projects and agricultural production do not need to exist in isolation. There are numerous examples from across the UK where they co-exist synergistically to create a natural and productive ecosystem, such as at Knepp Estate.

In 2001, Knepp received Countryside Stewardship funding. Since then, the estate has embarked on a “’process-led’, non-goal-orientated project where nature takes the driving seat.” Knepp received Higher Level Stewardship funding in 2010, and has since experienced great conservation and meat production success due to the presence of free-roaming herds of cattle and pigs who continuously restore and create new habitats for wildlife.

While Knepp is a model for how rewilding can be implemented in some places, we can’t turn every farm into Knepp as food yield per acre is low and only meat is produced. Other policies are needed to encourage rewilding to occur alongside farming.

Policy tools for rewilding farmland

In England, the Government is transitioning away from the Common Agricultural Policy’s Basic Payment Scheme through which farmers receive subsidies based on the amount of land farmed, to the new Environmental Landscape Management Schemes (ELMS) which will pay farmers and land managers for participation in three agri-environment schemes: the Sustainable Farming Initiative, Countryside Stewardship and Landscape Recovery.

Most of ELMS focuses on increasing biodiversity on productive farmland: the Sustainable Farming Initiative pays farmers to adopt nature-friendly farming practices that will provide public goods such as improved water quality and soil health. Similarly, the Countryside Stewardship scheme rewards farmers for their efforts to improve and protect natural environments, for example in restoring wildlife habitats and managing flood risk.

However, the ELM scheme capable of funding actual rewilding, rather than ‘farming with nature’, is the Landscape Recovery scheme, which provides funding for ambitious large-scale nature recovery projects. The 22 pilot projects began last year and included joining upland habitats through a wildlife rich nature network corridor in the South Pennines and creating wetland habitats in the Somerset Levels.

Photo of a tractor irrigating farmland

This scheme provides a mechanism for funding rewilding projects, which have traditionally been run mostly by wealthy landowners who could afford the initial loss of income from food production and some governmental payments.

With the right policy tools, synergies can be built between agriculture and rewilding in the UK to allow us to reach biodiversity and climate targets while still ensuring food security.

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Abigail Croker is a PhD Student at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, funded through the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, Grantham Institute. Abigail’s research explores wildfire challenges and agrarian resistance across conservation landscapes, with a broader focus on sustainable environmental management and climate change policy. Twitter: @croker_abigail