Ambitious rewilding movement celebrates Britain’s first regional scale multi-sector nature recovery alliance
Nature provided a sense of calm during the pandemic. The importance of protecting and restoring our natural world - and addressing the climate emergency - has never felt so urgent, particularly in the run up to COP26. Indeed, the enthusiasm for nature recovery has never been stronger.
As well as Government legislation, individual and collective energy is rising. In the ‘wild east’ of England, an ambitious movement is helping return 250,000 hectares back to nature. Initiated by three East Anglian farmers - Hugh Somerleyton, Oliver Birkbech and Argus Hardy - WildEast’s goal is to create Europe’s biggest and most biodiverse nature reserve over the next 50 years.
The Suffolk Project - Richard Allenby-Pratt
Since the initiative launched last July, they’ve had over 1,000 pledges of land across East Anglia, all logged on the interactive Map of Dreams. They are from schools, industrial estates, railways stations, churchyards, farms and private gardens, all giving up to 20% of their land to nature recovery. Those without land to pledge can still support with a financial contribution or through volunteering time and expertise.
“WildEast is an attempt to democratise nature recovery. It's a place where everyone – backyard, prison-yard, schoolyard, churchyard, farmyard - can pledge their 20%, the magic number nature needs to thrive in our hard-working landscapes, and record their witness statement on our Map of Dreams. The reason nature recovery has failed so far, despite huge investment, is that it's been about a few people in a few special places. It needs to be about everyone and everywhere. WildEast wants to BE a nature reserve, not just a place for people to visit, and we want more people to become planet savers.”
explains Hugh Somerleyton, owner of Somerleyton Estate & founder of WildEast.
WildEast Founding Members: Hugh Somerleyton, Oliver Birkbeck and Argus Hardy
The domino effect of thinking differently, and consciously, is fundamental to change. While rewilding is a cornerstone to recovery, responsible farming and consumption are also key to reversing ecological decline.
Spurred on by WildEast, many in East Anglia are embracing new ways of farming or rewilding land. This starts with the three founders, all of whom are moving their farming operations to a regenerative model, and encouraging others to consider neglected hedges as nature-rich 'wild edges' – arteries of nature pulsating with life across the hard working landscape.
Furthermore, Hugh Somerleyton has committed 1,000 acres to rewilding at his private holiday club Fritton Lake. Grassland, heathland and wooded pasture are grazed by free-roaming Dartmoor ponies, rare-breed cows, large black pigs, and water buffalo. So members, owners and holidaymakers at Fritton Lake can enjoy staycation accommodation and activities fully immersed in nature.
Bury Water Meadows - Richard Allenby-Pratt
Meanwhile, at Dingley Dell Pork, pig farmers Mark & Paul Hayward are embracing nature-friendly farming by linking sustainability with habitat creation. The brothers planted an extra 49 acres of nectar-rich flowers to feed a million bumblebees and rotate their pigs with nutrient enhancing plants. These drastic measures have vastly improved the quality of the meat they produce.
A growing trend born out of the pandemic is the rise of smallholdings and farm stores, as consumers make a deliberate shift from supermarkets to local producers. In East Anglia, this is exemplified in the likes of small scale, regenerative grower Anna Greenland in Suffolk, whose organic veg supplies the likes of Raymond Blanc, Tom Aikens and Jamie Oliver.
Businesses and communities are getting on board too. In May, Greater Anglia became the first transport operator to join the movement, pledging 56 railway station gardens to nature. In Massingham, WildEast co-founder and farmer Olly Birkbeck has restored 500 acres of heathland, while at the village school, children tend the school garden, cook vegetables they grow and learn about the importance of biodiversity through their wildflower beds. In partnership with the village hall, the school is planting over 400 trees around the playing field.
The Suffolk Project - Richard Allenby-Pratt
Inspiring the next generation is central to the WildEast mission. Testament to this is their collaboration with the Papillon Project - a charity promoting sustainable living and environmental awareness to young people across Norfolk. Other schools who have pledged include Lowestoft’s Warren School where children with learning difficulties enjoy pond dipping, apple bobbing and habitat creation at the onsite wild plot.
Collaboration is key too. WildEast already partners with like-minded institutions such as Rewilding Britain, Natural England, UCL, University of Essex, RSPB, Natural Cambridgeshire, Greater Anglia, Savills, Cultivo, Groundswell, CoExistence and the National Trust. Next month they’ll welcome the ‘Human Swan’ - Sacha Dench on her motorised paraglider - at a number of the WildEast projects.
The progress WildEast has made, and the enthusiasm with which the movement has been greeted, provides proof that not only do people care, they are relieved to be shown a clear way to help and participate. They’re willing to give both their time, money or indeed the earth itself in a huge collective effort to salvage nature and regenerate the planet.
WildEast is a potential franchise which other UK regions can work to replicate, so let's hope the domino effect continues.