Eleanor Doughty meets the environmentally conscious private landowners that are boosting Britain’s biodiversity across vast swathes of their estates through rewilding projects

There’s a snuffling and a scuffling, a snort and a shove coming from the other side of a pig pen in a farmyard on the Doddington Hall estate, near Lincoln. Three Hungarian Mangalitza pigs, genetic cousins of the now extinct Lincolnshire Curly Coat, have just spent their first night at Doddington. “Do they have names?” I ask Isobel Wright, manager of Doddington Hall’s rewilding project, Wilder Doddington. She suggests that it would be best not to get too attached. The unnamed pigs are destined for a life of turning the soil and digging for worms. Welcome to the world of rewilding projects. 

The one at Doddington was started by its owners, James and Claire Birch, in 2021. Claire Birch has “always been passionate about what wasn’t then called rewilding but was simply about caring for the nature around you”. When Claire took over Doddington in 2006, and shortly after opened a farm shop, the farm was contracted out in stewardship schemes. “I had no idea that within stewardship you could do much more than field margins and hedgerows,” she says. “The year we started to do something like rewilding, we hadn’t been able to get on to a third of the farm because it was so wet. The land is heavy clay, grade three, and increasingly marginal.”

The Doddington Hall estate started its rewilding project in 2021

The Doddington Hall estate in Lincolnshire embarked on its rewilding project in 2021

Fields formerly used for feed wheat are growing over to produce natural grazing for their Lincoln Red cattle. In time they will introduce wild ponies as well as the pigs, and the landscape will, Wright jokes, come to resemble the Lincolnshire Serengeti. What the Birches already have at Doddington, which works in their favour, is footfall. Some 250,000 visitors a year come to their popular farm shop, cycle shop and other retail outlets. It is Lincoln’s nearest stately home, eight miles from the castle and cathedral, and connected to the centre of town via a cycle path from Doddington’s front door. The hope is that with the cycle path, the Birches’ rewilding project will connect to other local green spaces and engage members of the public in their project.

Starting on the rewilding path

“It’s a peri-urban area,” says Claire, “but why couldn’t we have slow travel and people camping somewhere, visiting one nature site and cycling to another?” The Birches are far from alone in their enthusiasm for rewilding. Some call what they do in this area ‘regenerative farming’. Travelling the country speaking to landowners, one increasingly sees projects that fall somewhere on the rewilding spectrum – a wildflower meadow here, a new organic farm there. “A lot of our members prefer to use the phrase ‘nature recovery’, says Sarah Roller, policy officer of Historic Houses, of which James Birch was president between 2016 and 2020.

The British rewilding movement has been brought to the masses thanks to the rewilding projects at the Knepp estate in West Sussex, home to Sir Charles Burrell and his wife Lady Burrell, the author Isabella Tree. Their traditional intensive farming operation was failing. When I visited them in 2018, almost 20 years after they began rewilding project, they were still having to explain their vision to people. They talked about “holding your nerve” and about how “some people think it’s a scam somehow”. But they were “much less stressed compared with farming. That was a nightmare. Now we worry if it’s terrible weather because our visitors will get rained on,” said Lady Burrell.

Since then, she has written a bestselling book, Wilding, essential reading for those interested in the subject. Last June it was reported that one in five county councils have embraced rewilding public land, showing that it has cut through beyond the stately sector. Professor Alastair Driver is director of Rewilding Britain. Its ambition is to rewild at least 5% of Britain before 2030. He says: “I’ve met probably 100 private landowners who are considering doing it or are doing it, and I haven’t met anyone who is doing it for the wrong reasons.” He doesn’t force it on anyone, he laughs. “I only go out to places by invitation.”

Making rewilding projects pay

For most, the difficulty is making projects like these pay on estates that already require huge incomes to support their properties. Randal Plunkett, 21st Baron of Dunsany, takes a different approach at Dunsany Castle in Co Meath, Ireland. He is less worried about making rewilding projects pay for themselves than he is about the nature he is trying to encourage. In 2014 he decided to embark on rewilding 750 acres of his 1,600-acre estate, having become exasperated with the lack of wild space in Ireland. “Even Luxembourg has more trees than us, which is shameful when we think of ourselves as the green country,” he says. Not that he likes the word ‘rewilding’.

Woodpeckers have returned thanks to rewilding

Rewilding has seen the return of woodpeckers

“There’s the association with regenerative agriculture, which I am not part of,” he explains. He prefers ‘rewildernessing’. Dunsany Nature Reserve is increasingly looking like a wilderness, having seen woodpeckers, corncrakes, pine martens and snipe return. But it’s not a commercial space with a gift shop at the end. Visitors are limited. “My only interest is to understand as much about nature as possible and to get nature to work again,” says Lord Dunsany, who doesn’t cross parts of his land for months of the year because he doesn’t want to disturb the ground. “That sounds hippy but if your goal is to restore the environment, then you have to consider that the biggest disturbance of the environment is human,” he states.

He admits that he doesn’t “drink the same Kool-Aid” as the Burrells but admires what they’ve done. Others, like the Burrells, have incorporated a commercial element into their projects. In the wild lands of Gloucestershire, 11 miles from Stroud at Elmore Court, Sir Anselm Guise is also hard at work. Born in South Africa, Sir Anselm spent time going on more exotic safaris than those available in Sussex. His childhood passion was nature before he discovered electronic music and became a DJ. Inheriting his uncle’s estate in 2007, he found that in England “access to abundant diversity was something that you struggled to find – to get your nature hit you had to get on a plane”.

Inspired by Wilding

Struck by Lady Burrell’s book  in 2021 when a farm came back in hand, he was empowered to begin his own rewilding project. This included planning a 250- acre site incorporating a wetland, a wild swimming pond and a number of rare breeds. In May this year he is opening six tree houses that will sleep between two and four, to allow visitors to Elmore to “feel the exuberance and pleasures of living in harmony with nature”. The tree houses, says Sir Anselm, evoke “the part of you that harks back to being a child and clambering around the trees”.

He believes that “the dial has been genuinely changed”. When I ask whether he thinks rewilding has become a bit fashionable, he replies: “From the planet’s perspective, it probably doesn’t mind as long as people are doing things differently. Rewilding might be potentially a bit faddy, but people are doing it because they care about our environment.” Sir Anselm agrees that there’s a buzz to rewilding at the moment. “From a marketing perspective it’s great. I can do something I really love and hopefully more people will come to stay at Elmore because they can get an experience that is different to anything they might find elsewhere.”

When I ask Claire Birch the same question, she looks thoughtful. “You could articulate it like that but I would say that it’s about innovation, and people being inspired by it. I really hope that our visitors will learn a bit more about sustainability and food, and maybe just recycle their rubbish a bit better when they get home. I would tip the bandwagon on its head and say that if a few of us can inspire someone – perhaps a neighbouring farmer who farms conventionally – to have a look and not be scared by it, that would be great.”

Infusing visitors with the rewilding bug

Inspiring visitors, too, is half the battle. Hugh Crossley is 4th Baron Somerleyton and one of the three co-founders of WildEast, a project that aims to restore 20% of East Anglia to a natural habitat. He sees the enthusiasm for it in the visitors to Fritton Lake. This is his holiday club on the Somerleyton estate, and at the heart of his rewilding project. “Most people who come have read books about rewilding and are very clued up,” he says. “I can’t just say ‘here’s some land, we are rewilding’. I really need to be on my game. It keeps me reading.” Though he has not yet been successful in obtaining a beaver licence, there are now water buffalo at Fritton alongside the paddleboarders.

Some rewilding projects incorporate rewilding safaris

Somerleyton estate’s rewilding project has seen the introduction of several species

He hopes that in time human and buffalo can exist together harmoniously. “Can we paddleboard alongside water buffalo or is that a bridge too far?” Whatever happens, he’s in it for the long haul. The difference, he explains, between the Somerleyton project and Knepp is that “we are building rewilding around a mature tourism business, and Charlie has built a tourism business into a rewilding business”.

And why not? Professor Alastair Driver is all for rewilding as a commercial venture. “We live in a crowded country where people have become detached from nature,” he says. “One of the most important things we can do to reverse the decline in biodiversity is to re-engage people with nature. It won’t work if we try to shut people out of the land.” As long as what is done is carried out “sensitively and carefully, we embrace nature tourism”, he adds. “After all this is not pure rewilding – this is not Yellowstone. This is modern-day Britain and we haven’t got much space.”

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