How travellers can support the UK's revolutionary rewilding projects

A new era is dawning on farms and rural estates across the UK: owners are rethinking business models by working hand in hand with tourism to restore our countryside to the wild and help us to travel at nature’s pace.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 11 Mar 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 15 Mar 2021, 18:26 GMT
A white-tailed sea eagle in flight off the west coast of Scotland.

Hunted to extinction by the early 1900s, white-tailed eagles, the UK’s largest birds of prey, have been successfully reintroduced to the Isle of Wight and Scotland.

Photograph by Getty Images

Water and trees stretch as far as the eye can see, giving way to a bright blue sky. A lone canoeist cuts across the lake, sending ripples through a reflected skein of geese, honking as they fly overhead. Otherwise, all is still: the stunned silence of a heatwave. It’s summer 2020, and in the window between lockdowns I’ve made it a couple of hours out of London to Fritton Lake, a spot on the watery Suffolk-Norfolk border near The Broads that is, at least for this pandemic travel-deprived soul, a respectable stand-in for the wilds of Canada.

True, you won’t find moose on the loose in the marshes here, but the two-mile-long lake — the centrepiece of a newly revamped luxury resort set within the Somerleyton estate, is increasingly a place where nature reigns. Owner Hugh Somerleyton has committed one fifth (1,000 acres) of his land to rewilding, a process that includes slowly reducing non-native tree cover to let light rejuvenate seedbeds. It’s also meant gradually reintroducing a mix of both farmed and wild grazing animals such as red and fallow deer, pigs, cattle, ponies and sheep. This rootling, manuring, re-engineering of the estate’s patchwork of heath, woodland, wetland and former arable land aims to return the terrain to its natural, uncultivated state.

According to the WWF, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world; we have the highest proportion of land under agriculture (70%), of which less than 3% is organic. And clearly, being farmland, it isn’t biodiverse. Habitat decimation has resulted in one in seven of our native species facing extinction more than half are in decline. “Land here in East Anglia is among the most intensively farmed in the country,” says Somerleyton, who, together with local farm-owners Argus Hardy and Olly Birkbeck, have given over a fifth of their combined 7,900 acres to wildlife, as part of regional recovery initiative called WildEast. Over the next 50 years, it aims to persuade other farmers, as well as councils, businesses, schools and garden owners, to do the same. The target is to give 250,000 hectares of East Anglia to wildlife and create an accreditation system to encourage wildlife-friendly farming.

“I’ve always been a tree-hugger but it’s taken a while to train that focus,” laughs Somerleyton. “Just a few years ago, I was running a restaurant in London and didn’t even question where the meat came from. But through organisations like FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), I learned about places that were reintroducing species and allowing nature to lead the way.”

Somerleyton has also been inspired by one of the UK’s longest-established wilding sites: Knepp, the 3,460-acre West Sussex estate owned by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree that went from arable and dairy farming to organic, rewilded land with free-range livestock and a glamping site. Wilding, Tree’s story of that journey, published in 2018, has become a handbook of sorts for like-minded farmers.

“I think we’re all realising that there’s no more negotiation time,” says Somerleyton. “Mass meat-farming, animal welfare, carbon. We have to act now to reverse the damage. We’re beginning to get a community of experts to form a WildEast ‘dream team’. It’s a playful title but the idea is that working together — local residents, the Broads Authority, National Grid, university scientists, Natural England — we can speak with common voice.”

And that common voice is getting louder. “There’s a direction of travel, a chorus of voices now,” says Richard Bunting from Rewilding Britain, a charity that works to restore ecosystems. “It’s not piecemeal anymore. We’ve been talking to landowners for some time, and attitudes have shifted. We’ve called for 30% of the UK to undergo nature restoration in the next 10 years, at least 5% of which needs to be core rewilding projects. The Wildlife Trusts [a federation of 46 UK wildlife conservation charities] has called for similar action, as has the UK government in recent months, although it’s talking about including existing national parks, which is a separate issue — many aren’t in a good state.”

This February, Rewilding Britain launched a nationwide network of large-scale rewilding projects. “There are about 20 so far, but this will grow rapidly,” says Richard Bunting.

Ice on the flooded freshwater marshes of Ken Hill Estate, a farm in Norfolk where tourism and rewilding work hand in hand.

Photograph by Alamy

Let nature lead

Rewilding — the restoration of ecosystems to a state of self-sufficiency — may be a comparatively new movement in the UK but it’s been in increasingly common parlance since such high-profile projects as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US in 1995. It’s often used interchangeably with wilding (which seeks to create new, wilder ecosystems), a term popularised by Tree’s book, Wilding. “This year, I’ve been writing an actual handbook to wilding — responding to the tsunami of enquiries we get for practical advice,” says Tree. “It’s incredible how far things have come, given how it all started.”

Twenty years ago, her Sussex estate, Knepp, went bust. Farming had failed, the land was depleted. “EU subsidies were the only things keeping many farms afloat. But it forced the kind of agriculture that wasn’t natural, or sustainable,” says Tree. “We felt responsible for repairing the biodiversity, and it was astonishing how quickly headline species came back — including nightingales and turtle doves — that had long been absent. I wasn’t thinking of moving into eco-tourism, but suddenly we had groups visiting — the National Trust, RSPB and the like — that all felt conventional conservation had something to learn from what was going on at Knepp. And we needed somewhere to put them up. So, along came the campsite, then glamping, and safari-style tours based on our experiences in Africa, where my husband Charlie was born.”

The success of Tree’s book further boosted Knepp’s profile. “If I’d written it even six years earlier, I don’t think it would’ve gone anywhere,” she says. “But suddenly we had Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and Attenborough talking about plastics — a Pandora’s box of pent-up anxiety people hadn’t been able to articulate was suddenly opened. Rewildling is part of that.”

And that interest seemed to grow exponentially as the Covid-19 pandemic progressed. Around 30,000 visitors arrived at Knepp post-lockdown in summer 2020, eager to see recently introduced beavers and white storks — keystone species that are crucial to ecosystem regeneration. These species “need a little help; they won’t return on their own”, according to Tree. “Obviously, we had to manage those numbers sensitively; repeated low-level disturbance, like large numbers of people wandering off footpaths has a huge impact. But it also shows how tourism could be a lifeline to marginalised or remote farms and how scarce truly wild places are. Everybody should be able to walk to one, rather than having to drive miles.”

Back in East Anglia, near the northwest Norfolk seaside, Ken Hill Estate is another farm where tourism and rewilding work hand in hand. “We were already located in a tourist destination,” says owner Dominic Buscall. “And post Brexit, nature-based eco-tourism provides an accessible alternative to EU farming subsidies.” Ken Hill’s innovative, ‘regenerative’ farming focuses on soil restoration to drive biodiversity. A quarter of the 4,000-acre estate is rewilding, with beavers being introduced as dam-building flood mitigators, along with wild cattle, ponies and pigs as ‘site mangers’ for a more natural ecosystem.

“And now, we wait; we work at nature’s pace,” says Buscall. “Camping, glamping and guided nature experiences will be introduced within the next year, and there’ll be lots of engagement work with farmers looking to learn more, to drive similar projects.” Local collaboration is key to the success of projects like Ken Hill, which soon plans to introduce white-tailed eagles to its coastal land. Hunted to extinction by the early 1900s, the UK’s largest bird of prey has been successfully reintroduced to the Isle of Wight and Scotland.

TENT’s UK project, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, near Inverness, has planted close to a million native trees, restored damaged peatland and reintroduced red squirrels since it launched in 2003.

Photograph by Getty Images

The bigger picture

In 2019, Scotland led the UK in declaring a global climate emergency, with rewilding among its arsenal of proposed measures to combat the crisis. “The government is rewilding Forestry Commission land and nature reserves, but there’s an embedded cultural tradition that’s hard to shift,” says Peter Cairns, director of rewilding charity Scotland: The Big Picture. “Moving people out and nature in can recall the Highland Clearances” [the enforced evictions of Highlands and Islands communities for farming, which began in the mid-18th century]. But Cairns believes tourism has a role to play in reframing that narrative. “Carefully managed, it provides local opportunity: economic, educational, and, dare I say, spiritual,” he says. “There’s no doubt that being out in nature, having it interpreted to you by a knowledgeable guide, has a profound impact on people. And the appetite is there. Scotland has projects coming out of its ears.”

Next year, the world’s first rewilding centre is set to open at the 10,000-acre Dundreggan estate, complete with accommodation and a visitor centre. Led by the conservation charity Trees for Life, which has 20 years of expertise working for the regeneration of Scotland’s Caledonian Forest, the centre expects to welcome around 50,000 people annually. “You don’t want to overwhelm an area, but set on the road between Loch Ness and Skye, it’s accessible: a gateway to the Highlands, for people to get out and see rewilding in action,” says Rewilding Britain’s Richard Bunting. “And it will create jobs in an area that’s suffered economically.”

Further south, in Dumfries and Galloway, nature, tourism and the local economy sit in harmonious balance, thanks to a unique business model. The recent purchase of 5,000 acres of wildlife-rich land at Langholm Moor represents south Scotland’s biggest community buyout, in terms of land value. “Much of Scotland is owned by a relatively small number of people,” says Bunting. “So, even if it comes up for sale, it can be hard for local communities to buy.” But buy they did, after £3.8m of funds were raised, aided by organisations like the Woodland Trust and Scottish Land Fund. The resultant Langholm Initiative will this year start work on the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, set on land that’s a haven for merlins, black grouse, short-eared owls and hen harriers (Britain’s most intensively persecuted bird of prey, according to the RSPB). “Eco-tourism and encouraging visitors to this hidden natural gem is a key part of the community’s plans to support regeneration of this former mill town,” says Bunting.

There are clear economic benefits in travel and tourism working symbiotically with rewilding. “Ospreys alone bring in something like £3.5m a year to Scotland,” says Bunting. Further afield, in Finland, the chance to see brown bears and wolverines are reportedly bringing in up to €5m (£4.4m) a year; griffon vultures in France attract tens of thousands of visitors. “As long as this is done sensitively, it can feed the growing appetite for people to engage with nature. It’s known to be good for health and wellbeing and is such a positive way of travelling, and there’s an opportunity to give something back.”

Paul Lister, founder of The European Nature Trust (TENT), agrees. “Taking people into nature helps them want to protect it. This connection is key,” he says. TENT organises tours to rewilding projects in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, Italy and Spain, where bears, wolves and lynxes now thrive. “It’s crucial that hotels in rural areas engage with local wildlife and NGOs, and allow guests to find out what they do, be it a turtle foundation or big cat conservation,” adds Lister.

TENT’s UK project, Alladale Wilderness Reserve, near Inverness, has planted close to a million native trees, restored damaged peatland and reintroduced red squirrels since it launched in 2003. All now thrive around lodges in which visitors can bed down in comfort before setting out on nature tours across the 39sq-mile Highlands estate, where, soon, they might encounter reintroduced Scottish wildcats and, eventually, wolves.

Back at Fritton Lake, I swim under a setting sun, barn owls and marsh harriers my companions, swooping about in the gloaming. “If you go camping in, say, Atlantic France, people think nothing of wild boar roaming the other side of the canvas,” says Somerleyton. “If I suddenly did this at Fritton — well, it would be problematic. So, it’s about a gradual change, slowly waking up regional collective consciousness. We’ll offer lake and woodland safaris and partner with schools on farming and wildlife education. Because, ultimately, we want to work towards living in a nature reserve, not just visiting one.”

Further reading

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, by Isabella Tree (£9.99, Pan Macmillan)

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, by George Monbiot, a co-founder of Rewilding Britain (£10.99, Penguin Books)

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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