Hi folks – since I started this project three years ago I’ve been asked quite a few questions about the practicalities and ways of doing things, so here is my attempt to bring together a few of the lessons I have learned. Needless to say it is still early days for this project, and I am no expert on land-management, but I think I’ve done okay.
NOTE: I have recently set up a charity dedicated to collectively returning nature to the Somerset Levels through rewilding, expanding on the work I have done below. Please visit www.somersetwildlands.org and sign-up or donate to support.
- If you have the money, getting land is quite easy.
This might sound flippant, but it isn’t really. One of the questions I get asked most is how to buy land. And the answer, particularly with small unfashionable bits, is that you buy them at auctions and tenders for cash. Most small bits of land seem to be sold at auctions. This is an opportunity as it means you can buy land in a fair and transparent way, and no one can withhold it from you if they are unhappy with the thought of what you might do (rewilding is not a popular in all places); but it also means that once the hammer comes down you have about 4 weeks to pay – too short a time to get a mortgage processed.
- Land prices vary HUGELY. Buy the cheap stuff if you can.
Again, this is obvious but crucial. In my searches I have seen land in my county varying from <£3000/acre to over £15,000/acre. Key things which keep land cheap are lack of access, flood risk, small field size etc. As a general rule grazing land is much cheaper than arable land. The exception is land that is suitable for horse paddocks, which can be crazy expensive. Forested land too, while initially attractive to many people interested in land for nature, can be very expensive. It is also often already protected, so while you will be conserving it, you won’t necessarily be ‘creating’ additional space for forests or nature.
- You can find land easily
Just use the normal websites like rightmove, onthemarket and zoopla and set the filters up. You can draw maps around areas you are interested in.
- Be flexible with your first patches
Keep an open mind about where you want your first patch of land to be. This will give you more choice, but almost anywhere you end up picking will have big value for nature, even if it doesn’t right now. The temptation is to get land in nature rich areas already, and I do think there is validity in helping to create high wildlife cores, but in many ways the bleaker and more trashed the plot is now, the greater the potential benefits.
- There are benefits in one big area and lots of little ones
Both have their charms. I asked some eminent ecologists which was better. ‘It depends’, they said. I would say that a lot of islands of chaos in a farming landscape will be very valuable, as would a big bloc refuge.
- Don’t buy in a protected area or SSSI
Don’t buy land in a Site of Special Scientific Interest unless you want to maintain it largely as it is. You can check this by using https://magic.defra.gov.uk/– the government’s magic maps.
SSSIs are legal designations which mean that the land is protected for certain features or species, and you will need to protect them and maintain them. This has a strong logic, but it can also be frustrating, since the rules are largely designed to keep things as they are in the face of farming and forestry, rather than allow nature to do its thing. So you can end up in an odd situation where a wet forest and a wet grassland right next to each other are both SSSIs, both designated priority habitats. Left alone one would eventually transition into the other, the grassland scrubbing up and slowly turning into forest, occasional floods killing the trees etc. That would probably not be allowed under the current rules. The one caveat to this is that the rules may change to allow more natural succession, so you could take a bet on that.
- Probably best if you are able to visit the land regularly
Very likely it will be better if you are able to visit and enjoy the land reasonably regularly. You will be able to make whatever small interventions you need to, make sure it’s secure (illegal dumping is a big thing), and get to know it more closely than probably any bit of the countryside you have before.
- Understand hidden costs
You can’t predict all eventualities, but are there hidden costs? Are you buying a woodland by an A-road which means you might be responsible for making sure the branches don’t grow into the road? Are there drainage fees (I have to pay these to keep main ditches cleared).
You may need to get public liability insurance in case someone breaks a leg climbing a tree and decides to sue. Shop around. The first insurance companies I went to demanded I install signs and survival rings along all the drainage ditches on my fields. Totally stupid.
- Once you’ve found some land, check it out and buy it
If you have found some likely land, check it out. Go walk around it. Get a feel for it, see what is there. Make sure it isn’t full of old tyres or Japanese knotweed or piles of unexpected metal. Try and imagine what it might look like in ten years, or what it might add to the landscape around it. If you like it, think about buying it. If its being auctioned you can sometimes buy it before the auction just by making an offer. Get your conveyancing lawyers to make sure there are no outstanding planning applications which might affect it (a new road next door, a pylon, a new Tesco down the lane), or issues with contamination. I would not worry about flooding, that’s probably a good thing, unless you want to camp on it.
- Once you have your land, relax
A lot of conservation folk get very intense once you have land. They start talking about management plans and baseline surveys and key performance indicators to measure the success of your project. Why? Just relax. Yes, there will be work to do, but this is a project driven by a rewilding philosophy. This is ultimately about making space for nature, and not having fixed outcomes. Of course, your land will be too small. There will be compromises. For your own sanity and happiness you will end up making some interventions. That’s fine, nothing is perfect, and your intent matters. But do try to be as hands off as possible.
- Get to know what lives in your land
Spend time getting to know the land through the seasons. Do nothing for a while. Learn the plants and animals as best you can.
- You don’t necessarily need to do loads of grazing
Standard conservation is obsessed with grazing. This is good for a few species, less good for others. It also has a habit of acting as a gatekeeper, putting off people who don’t know about livestock. Of course at a larger scale grazing is a vital natural process but chances are that if you have bought a little bit of grazed land most of the land around it is heavily grazed too, so don’t worry too much. If you don’t graze your patch for a few years it will add something new to the landscape. This is probably far more valuable than thinking you need to maintain the existing regime. I have one field which I have not had grazed in three years. Another which was just grazed for a few weeks in October (I just let a neighbouring farmer use it for three weeks for free). Neither has ‘gone to ruin’. And in any case, this is a long game. So what if it starts to scrub up or reeds come in? Unless you are host to something so rare that the only rational thing to do is protect it against all change, then it will be interesting to see what happens. I don’t get lapwings on my fields (grass is too long), but they are all over the Levels anyway. (EDIT – I actually do get lapwings! I saw eight on my scrape for the first time in 2020, along with snipe in the grass.) I do get lots of skylarks, barn owls, marsh harriers, foxes, deer, goldfinches and so on.
- Take official advice with a pinch of salt
Take advice, and listen to it, and do your research but remember that a lot of standard conservation has developed around maintaining a certain outcome, which is not what rewilding is about. When I first called Natural England they told me to pick a species and manage for it (needless to say both species were birds). They also advised that I remove some large trees as these provided nests for crows which might feed on ground nesting birds. I think I told them this was a horrible idea and ignored it.
- Keep the rewilding philosophy, but don’t worry about being too purist
In an ideal world rewilding would be getting huge areas of land and leaving them the hell alone, with a few key species reintroduced. That’s not where we are, and it’s not where small-scale rewilding is. This is about being driven by the philosophy of rewilding. So keep interventions minimal and don’t over engineer. Plant trees, dig scrapes, block ditches, learn to chop wood and scythe. You are not creating Yellowstone. But I would suggest that we should retain that core of minimal intervention, and of open-ended outcomes.
- Get a camera trap if you like, and record what you see
Depending how big your bit of land is, nothing bigger than a dragonfly may live on it. But lots of things will use it. I have counted dozens of species using mine, often in different ways than they use my neighbours’. That is largely the value this bit of land now has. I know from camera traps that deer rut on my land and largely feed elsewhere. Hares and foxes hide in it, and possibly give birth. Skylarks nest. Snipe overwinter but don’t nest. Herons and ducks sleep on my scrape but hunt in the ditches. Goldfinches flock to the thousands of thistle seed-heads in the uncut grass in autumn.
- Don’t get despondent
There will be times when you go to your land and think ‘what the f*ck am I doing?’. It will seem like a drop in the ocean. It may feel lifeless, or totally self-centred. There might be times too when it seems indistinguishable from the farmland around it and you will wonder what the point is. I have these. But then just as all the fields are beginning to buzz in late May, most will be cut for silage, or grazed to bone, and suddenly my fields will stand out, all tangled grass and birdsong. Or you will see a family of deer sleeping in the long grass in an ocean of cut sward and know that they have chosen that place to feel safe.
- You will probably feel better if you eat less meat
One of the big come backs people have when you talk to them about owning land and not ‘producing’ anything, is that you are taking food away from people. It’s certainly true that without changing our diets any land taken out of production in the UK probably just means more land used somewhere else – like Argentina or Brazil. In the long term we can only free up land if we reduce our consumption, and that means eating less meat. Meat takes up many times more land per unit of calories produced than plant-based food. So less meat, means we can free up more land. This is particularly the case if you are buying cheaper grazing land – since the standard complaint of the agriculture industry is that nothing would grow on it anyway. Well, so be it. Let’s just leave a proportion of it alone for nature. I’m not saying we all need to go vegan, but I think we do need to eat less meat.