Plans to rewild an area the size of Dorset to restore biodiversity have been branded ‘unrealistic’ by farmers.
The WildEast project was itself founded by three farmers, Hugh Somerleyton, Argus Hardy and Olly Birkbeck, who own more than 3,200 hectares on their family farms in Norfolk and Suffolk.
It aims to persuade farmers, councils and businesses across East Anglia to pledge a fifth of their land to wildlife without subsidy.
But some have already branded the plans ‘unworkable’ for ordinary farmers.
Cambridgeshire Fens farmer and Farmers Guardian ‘In Your Field’ Columnist Tom Clarke said: “Farmers depend on their land to pay the bills and so to give away your advantages and unique assets for free is bad business, but to let others make you give it away is feudal.”
And with similar rewilding projects having replicated this frustration nationwide, farmers from across the country weighed in on the debate.
Joe Stanley, a mixed farmer from Leicestershire, added: “The idea farmers should dedicate 20 per cent of their land to nature without remuneration is clearly not a realistic or viable template for the majority of farmers across the country.
“Taking productive land out of food production for environmental regeneration is beneficial and necessary, but farmers need to be subsidised, especially smaller tenant farmers who cannot afford to spare land without financial aid.”
Will Evans, a mixed farmer from Wrexham, North Wales, also claimed WildEast had failed to recognise the ‘continued efforts’ by farmers to enhance landscapes and protect the environment.
“WildEast seem to neglect the tremendous amount of work farmers are already doing for the environment, with many a part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network,” he said.
Mr Stanley also warned WildEast’s calls for a transition to a wilder way of farming did not guarantee sustainability.
“Land sparing leaves a gap in food production which cannot be filled by intensifying production elsewhere," he said.
“This could therefore see us exporting our environmental footprint and importing more food.”
But Christopher Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, claimed the move was a ‘positive example’ of the way farmer-led initiatives could help to combat biodiversity and climate challenges.
“We need more farmers to be focusing on the overall sustainability of their businesses. This includes looking at how their assets can be used to generate an income for producing environmental benefits,” he said.
“Going forward only prosper through a combination of selling produce commercially, providing public goods on a commercial basis, such as to water companies, or providing other public benefits that need to be supported through the ELM scheme."