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How will efforts to 'rewild' Britain affect farmers and their businesses?

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Farmers are often at the heart of rewilding and rural restoration projects meaning while some schemes are welcome, others are not. Olivia Midgley reports.
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Efforts to ‘rewild’ Britain have gathered steam in the last few years.

 

A mountain of work has already been completed, from The Yorkshire Peat Partnership’s major restoration scheme in the North York Moors, to the recreation of bog habitats and wetlands in West Cumbria.

 

Defra figures showing a 2 per cent increase in farmland birds in 2014 is also testament to the farmers who provide habitats for some of the country’s most vulnerable species.

 

But things stepped up a gear this summer with the launch of Rewilding Britain, a new charity dedicated to the ‘mass restoration of ecosystems in Britain’, covering one million hectares (2.47m acres) of land and 30 per cent of our territorial waters.

 

The organisation, which has a particular focus on Scotland, hopes to establish at least three core areas of rewilded land by 2030, which equates to in excess of 100,000ha (247,000 acres).

 

Rewilding Britain director and farmer’s daughter Helen Meech, insisted rewilding will not be ‘imposed’ on people, but added the charity’s ethos was more about ‘letting natural processes reign’ and ‘giving nature the space to do its thing’.

 

“There are already farmers who are doing some fantastic things, such as the Knepp Castle Estate which comprises 3,500 acres of heavy weald clay in West Sussex,” said Ms Meech.

 

“The estate was intensively farmed for years but is actually making more money now that it was when it was farmed.”

 

Free-roaming animals - cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – have driven the regeneration.

 

Their different grazing preferences help create a mosaic of habitats from grassland and scrub to open-grown trees and wood pasture.

 

At low cost, the animals provide wild-range, slow-grown, pasture-fed organic meat for which there is a growing market.

 

Knepp has attracted support from Natural England through environmental stewardship scheme and its focus on rewilding has prompted successful spin off enterprises. The farmland is now profitable.

 

“In just over a decade Knepp has seen astonishing results in biodiversity,” added Ms Meech.

 

“It is now a breeding hotspot for purple emperor butterflies, turtle doves and 2 per cent of the UK’s population of nightingales.

 

“The business also now includes a safari and camping site so this has shown how rewilding can bring tourism benefits as well.”

 

She said as well as the financial benefit, schemes such as tree planting could help protect against flooding. In addition, they could also help more marginal land become profitable in the event of a future reduction in CAP subsidies.

 

“We also think there could be some temporary projects where farmed land can be left to nature for, say, five years, then brought back into production," Ms Meech added.
"We would like to set up some pilots to create, test and experiment and see what is possible."

 

More contentious, however, is the group’s vision to restore species which used to flourish in the UK but have since become extinct or very rare.

 

These include beavers, wild boar, bison, cranes, pelicans, sturgeon, bluefin tuna, lynx and eventually wolves, grey whales, humpbacks and sperm whales.

 

Farming leaders have warned that proposals to reintroduce species including lynx and wolves to remote parts of Britain could in fact contradict the good work being done and at considerable cost.

 

Wild boar

 

Industry experts agree the reintroduction of wild boar on a large scale would be controversial due to the damage they can cause to agricultural land, with destruction of crops a big problem on the continent.

 

However, within the Caledonian Forest, wild boar serve an important purpose.

 

Because of their large size and frequent rooting for food, wild boar have a significant effect on the forest floor.

 

Trees for Life, which has been working with wild boar since 2004 said, through disturbing the soil, the animals create ideal conditions for germination of seedlings, especially Scots pine. They can also help to disperse seeds, through pushing them into the soil.

 

A Trees for Life spokesman said: “One of their most useful functions, and the reason we are particularly interested in the species, is they eat bracken, whereas other species are not able to digest it. They also dig it up for bedding material and grub up the underground rhizomes which store starch during the winter. This stops it spreading across the forest floor and preventing the growth of seedlings.”

 

Bob Carruth of NFU Scotland said the industry was concerned about the effects of wild boar on animal health.

 

“We know there is some loose boar in areas of the Highlands and the concerns we have are the implications this can have on disease control,” he added.

 

“Experience in others parts of the world has shown that trying to get disease such as swine fever and foot-and-mouth under control can be difficult when populations are unmanageable. They can act as a reservoir for disease.”

 

Lynx

 

But the reintroduction of lynx by Lynx UK Trust has proved extremely controversial due to the threat the cats could pose to livestock.

 

While the group is currently consulting on public and stakeholder opinion, farming groups including the National Sheep Association and NFU Scotland have expressed their concerns about proposals for areas of England and Scotland.

 

NFUS deputy director of policy Andrew Bauer said: “Farmers are quite right to question why and how lynx, absent from Scotland since medieval times, should be reintroduced.

 

“Alongside trumpeting the benefits, those who advocate lynx reintroduction should be up front about the potential impacts on Scotland’s hugely important sheep farming industry and the potentially very significant cost to the public purse.
“Anyone who is concerned about lynx reintroduction should take heart from the fact that any such proposal would be subject to a considerable level of scrutiny.”

 

Situation in Norway

 

The Norwegian Farming Union has first-hand experience of the predatory impact of lynx wolverine, bears and wolves.

 

In a presentation to Scottish farmers, Norwegian farmers said they were dealing with about 350 lynx, 378 wolverine, 148 bears, and 34 wolves.

 

Key concerns

  • The level of predation is so high it severely impacts where and how much sheep farming happens in Norway
  • Large parts of Norway are zoned for species protection and within these zones sheep farming is no longer possible
  • Sheep losses to predators out of these zones were high – 3,895 ewes and 19,671 lambs in 2014 – but the government compensation scheme was only covering approximately three fifths of losses reported by farmers
  • Many sheep farmers in Norway forced to leave farming due to the negative impact of predation

 

Farmers help increase numbers of Corn Bunting  

 

The RSPB in Scotland recently praised farmers for their work to save rare corn buntings in Angus, Fife and Aberdeenshire.

 

The corn bunting was once widespread but following rapid declines there have been several local extinctions during the last decade and now just 800 pairs remain in Scotland.

 

The combination of a late breeding season, a preference for nesting in growing crops and a seed diet centred on grains along with insects fed to chicks makes corn buntings especially vulnerable to modern agricultural practices.

 

Farm Manager at P.J. Stirling Farms, Gary Bruce, said: “We, as a farm, take our responsibility to caring for and protecting the environment very seriously. That is why from 2007 we have planted a sward of wildflower mix along a scenic 4km footpath on our land.

 

“Obviously with our wild bird cover and working alongside RSPB Scotland in the Angus Corn Bunting Recovery Project we have and will continue to create the perfect habitat to encourage corn buntings to return year after year. We are pleased our farm is a haven for ‘twitchers’ and birdwatchers, who come spot rare species in and around our farm”.

 

This summer, a total of 246 corn bunting territories were recorded over 48 farms compared to 232 in 2009. More detailed analysis is underway to investigate how local changes relate to farmers’ participation in agri-environment schemes.

 

Elaine Booth of Ednie Farms, Aberdeenshire, also took part.

 

"We enjoy seeing wildlife around the farm and feel it is important that land management is carried out that supports this,” she added.

 

“Ensuring business and wildlife sustainability co-exist is vital. The survey results and feedback from this have been interesting and it’s rewarding to learn that agri-environment management has the potential to recover some priority farmland bird populations."

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