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Born to rewild

Professor Alastair Driver, specialist advisor to the Broughton Sanctuary, on rewilding the historic North Yorkshire Estate
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Born to rewild

This article first appeared in our Love issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 09 April 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Almost without noticing, over the last century we have taken our eye off the nature ball.

We are now starting to realise that if we don’t start working with nature rather than against it – and fast – then it’s not only nature that will suffer irreversibly, but mankind too.

After 35 years in public service, finishing in 2016 as the national head of conservation for the Environment Agency, I am now encouraging a new focus on nature by helping farmers and other landowners across the country to rewild their land.

What is rewilding?

Rewilding is defined as ‘the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself’. Very importantly – and contrary to some of the myths you might have read – a key principle of rewilding is that people are part of nature; it encourages a richer engagement where each can thrive.

For the last four years, my part-time day job has been director for the tiny but big-hitting charity Rewilding Britain. Such is the demand for advice from landowners that I have the pleasure of filling the rest of my working days with ongoing private advice to inspirational and pioneering landowners like Roger Tempest and his partner Paris Ackrill at Broughton Hall Estate, North Yorkshire.

This remarkable couple, like a growing number of conscientious Estate owners across the country, see themselves as custodians of the land for future generations – even though Broughton Hall has been in Roger’s family for 32 generations.

Restoration and wellbeing

Every rewilding landowner has a slightly different set of priorities for their land; some just want it left for nature while others want to create education activities or develop nature-based tourism or food and drink production. For Roger and Paris, the focus is on providing holistic health and wellbeing opportunities.

They both have a keen interest in both our inner nature (that of individual human minds and bodies) and outer nature (that of other species and the Earth), combined with a passion for solution-led action. They believe it is their duty to leave Broughton in a much healthier condition for generations to come.

This is just the opportunity I have been waiting for: the chance to combine major landscape-scale ecosystem restoration with holistic expert-led health and wellbeing programmes.

We’ve known for years that access to nature provides really significant benefits for depression, anxiety and obesity, but actual quantified evidence is still largely lacking – not least because the benefits are really difficult to measure.

With state-of-the-art facilities already in place at Broughton and an expert team on hand, we now have the opportunity to put that right.

A perfect circle

In the meantime, we need to crack on with the rewilding. The landscape may look wonderfully green, but it only has about 6% tree cover and is dominated by intensively sheep-grazed pastures. Like any monoculture landscape, this supports far less biodiversity than a mosaic of healthy habitats would, and it does us no favours in terms of flood risk, water quality and carbon sequestration.

We are aiming to rewild a third of the Estate; to kick things off, Broughton is host to the largest tree-planting project in the country. 230,000 native trees and shrubs have been planted courtesy of the White Rose Forest, which secured major funding from the £640m Nature for Climate Fund.

This is the completion of a perfect circle because, on behalf of Rewilding Britain, I briefed ministers for a parliamentary debate in late 2019 calling for a major increase in funding for nature to help mitigate climate change. That very positive event led directly to the creation of the Nature for Climate Fund.

Messing things up

It’s not just a reduction in sheep grazing followed by tree planting that is needed to kick-start rewilding at Broughton. Space for regenerating trees and scrub is equally important, and in due course we will create ponds and scrapes.

In a few years, when the trees have established sufficiently, we will need to introduce small numbers of native, widely roaming breeds of cattle – and possibly even a few ponies and ancient pigs – back into this landscape to help ‘mess things up’ and restore natural processes.

With nature-friendly farming and food production continuing on the other two-thirds of the Broughton Hall Estate, we hope this will be a model that encourages other landowners in the north of England to rewild in this way – just as the famous Knepp Castle Estate has proved a source of inspiration in the south.

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