Lake-wading water buffalo in Suffolk, forests of waist-high “wee trees” on Scottish mountain peaks, and even the idea of lynx roaming Northumberland. These are just a fraction of the nature projects being given a push by the rewilding movement in the UK, and which will be marked by the first World Rewilding Day on the spring equinox on Saturday.
Backed by the Global Rewilding Alliance, an umbrella group for organisations in more than 70 countries that are looking to restore ecosystems by returning land to nature, the day will be celebrated with virtual events to share knowledge, skills and connections.
“The fact this event is happening, and involving so many people from around the world, highlights the huge growth in rewilding’s popularity over recent years,” said Richard Bunting, a spokesman for Rewilding Britain, which will co-host the UK’s #ReadytoRewild event with Heal Rewilding, the national wildlife charity. “At its heart, it’s about hope. Rewilding offers a powerful way of tackling the overlapping nature, climate and health crises,” he said.
Last month, Rewilding Britain launched a network to promote the process and make the most of people’s desire to “build back better” after the Covid pandemic. The charity is calling for nature restoration across 30% of Britain’s land and sea by 2030, with 5% of this dedicated to core habitats, such as native forest, peat bogs, saltmarshes and kelp beds.
Rewilding can be contentious when it is at odds with local communities, but it is becoming a more established way of thinking about the environment, thanks to longstanding proponents, such as Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex and Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent, which have shown how an approach that encompasses both people and the land can thrive. Here are some of the places taking strides to rewild while offering tourist experiences.
Dundreggan, Scottish Highlands
More than 4,000 species of plants and animals are found here, and last year a pair of golden eagles raised a chick at Dundreggan for the first time in 40 years, following the creation of an artificial eyrie. There’s also a project under way to plant a 2,832-hectare area of rare high-altitude woodland with Scotland’s ancient waist-high “wee trees”, such as dwarf birch and downy willow, that once thrived near mountain summits but have been decimated by centuries of over-grazing by sheep and deer.
Visitors to Dundreggan will find wildlife hides and a short network of walking trails, and in a year’s time a rewilding centre is to open – with accommodation. The Scottish Rewilding Alliance is also urging MSPs to back a parliamentary motion for Scotland to declare itself the first “rewilding nation”.
Somerleyton Estate and Wild East, Suffolk
“Think big” is the motto of Hugh Somerleyton, one of the trustees of Wild East: an ambitious regional nature recovery project launched in 2020 that wants 20% of land across East Anglia to be given back to nature over a generation. This March, his 404-hectare rewilding site at Somerleyton Estate’s Fritton Lake has let loose water buffalo, Exmoor ponies, pigs and Highland cattle. Beavers will be next, and Somerleyton is also working with Lowestoft’s Africa Alive! zoo to bring Dalmatian pelicans back to Fritton Lake as a trial for the wider Broadlands landscape. Somerleyton is also planning to introduce wild camping within the reserve this summer. Wild East has launched the Map of Dreams, an app where people can sign up to return land to nature. So far, it has amassed 1,000 pledgees, including farms, gardens, schools, councils and even Greater Anglia railway stations.
Wild Ennerdale, Cumbria
Once dominated by spruce but degraded by over-zealous sheep grazing, this remote valley is the poster child for rewilding in the Lake District. Working with farming, forestry and local residents, the owners have encouraged unkempt nature to tempt salmon back in to the rivers and red squirrels in to its ancient oak woodland groves. Marsh fritillary butterflies and migrating population of Arctic char are also here. Wild Ennerdale hosts adventure tourism, including hiking, biking, climbing, orienteering and canoeing. There are two YHAs providing accommodation, including the Black Sail hostel in a restored shepherd’s bothy at the head of the valley.
Langholm Moor, Dumfries & Galloway
In October 2020, crowdfunding paved the way for the creation of the Tarras valley nature reserve by the Langholm Initiative charity. Birdlife is the big draw here, including merlins, black grouse, short-eared owls and hen harriers, the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey. The reserve will repair damage to important peatlands and create more than 200 hectares of new native woodlands. Once established, Tarras valley intends to develop responsible tourism initiatives, including a small eco-campsite.
langholminitiative.org.uk (for the Tarras valley nature reserve)
Wild Ken Hill, Norfolk
The first summer after Wild Ken Hill started transitioning more than 600 hectares back to the wild, the land was alive with insects and butterflies. It’s now been two years and project manager Dominic Buscall says one of its biggest successes has been community engagement. “We’ve had hundreds of people visit to learn more,” he said. “It’s curiosity turning into advocacy.” Wild Ken Hill has reintroduced beavers and, following a public consultation, has submitted a proposal to Natural England to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to the east of England. When lockdown eases, the farm will introduce eco-tours and has its sights on camping for 2022.
Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Berkshire
Environmental campaigners Peter and Juliet Kindersley – also the founders of the DK publishing house – are at the start of their rewilding journey, but have been invested in biodiversity for decades. Their 1,010-hectare organic farm in the North Wessex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty has rejuvenated intensely farmed arable land with chalk downland and wild meadows. The next step involves rewilding scrub, woodland and fields to further restore the farm’s ecosystems. Accommodation for two is available at the farm’s off-grid lakeside boathouse: £185 a night, minimum two-night stay.