European Bison (Wisent) in the Kraansvlak, Netherlands. ©Miles King
Over at Mark Avery’s blog, Steve Jones outlined the idea of creating a series of pilot New Natural Areas, a new class of natural landscape to sit alongside National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Steve stressed that such areas would compliment, not replace, existing efforts to secure wildlife-friendly farming. Here, Steve tells an entirely fictional story, looking back in time from the vantage point of 2030, of how one particular Natural Area came into being.
It’s a hot July day in 2030 and we’re sitting on a hillock affording panoramic view across the 26,000ha Brecknoll Natural Area. This particular New Natural Area came into existence in fairly modest form when, in 2019, it was selected as one of five pilot rewilding areas. Initially called New Natural Areas during their development phase of active intervention, they’ll be renamed as Natural Areas after 30 years to reflect their transition to light-touch management.
The Brecknoll pilot, in the English southern lowlands, was initially restricted to the publicly-owned 15,000ha of afforested heath and open acid and chalk grassland mosaic, and two adjacent shooting estates, totalling 3,000ha, that entered the scheme on the understanding that carefully managed hunting for wild meat could continue, with the harvest sold at the lakeside restaurant sitting where the dryer uplands drop down to the broad Breck River floodplain.
Over time, another three adjacent farms entered the pilot, supported by the government’s Natural Areas Stewardship Scheme (NAS). This provides a simple payment per-hectare of land entered into the NNA, with a generous top up where adjacent private land owners collaborate to increase the area entered, plus top ups for initial preparatory works (such as fence removal) and business planning (the restaurant feasibility study and business plan, as well as some building conversion costs, were all supported this way). Agreements last for 30 years, with an additional lump sum payment at the end of the initial term if the land owners renew for a second, 30 year term.
Land owners report that one of the great attractions of the NAS scheme is its simplicity: it offers a standard payment based purely on land area, rather than specifying habitats to be delivered. The payment aims to capture the value of a basket of social benefits delivered in addition to recovery of natural habitat, including atmospheric carbon sequestered and water quality impacts avoided. This simple formula also greatly reduces scheme administration costs, because outcomes are measured from satellite land cover data.
Funding for the NAS comes from a re-purposed Common Agricultural Policy, now called the Countryside Challenge Fund (CCF) to reflect its wider purpose. The CCF still pays farmers a small basic payment for sustainable farm practices, but most funding is now directed through an expanded Countryside Stewardship, and through the NAS initially within rewilding pilot sites. Countryside Stewardship aims to deliver wildlife alongside food production; Natural Areas Stewardship aims to support natural enterprises within non-extractive, naturally-functioning areas. As such, these schemes are complementary.
A Brecknoll Land Trust was formed during the pilot project start-up phase. It represents a public-private-nongovernmental partnership, responsible for coordinating delivery of the NNA project and long-term management. It is a charity, capitalised by a large government endowment with revolving funds drawing from various sources through time. Although initial land purchases here are costly, longer-term costs are projected to fall as initial recovery interventions are scaled back. Management will be minimal after a couple of decades.
The publicly-owned afforested heath and open grasslands were vested to the Land Trust during the first two years of the pilot and, the plantations being mature, the Trust set about selling timber. Areas of broadleaved trees, small copses, linear streamside woodlands and veteran trees were all retained, initially creating a part-open landscape very much like the New Forest. Prior to this, a lively debate between the RSPB and the Land Trust considered how best to accommodate nightjars, which had hitherto thrived under a regime of clear-felling and re-stocking. Analysis suggested that birds would distribute themselves more evenly across the landscape at least in the short-term, and, if large grazing and browsing mammals did indeed manage to maintain significant areas of open habitat, nightjars ought to persist, along with innumerable other open habitat specialists. But such uncertainty was acknowledged to be one of the drawbacks of the ‘naturally functioning system’ approach being tested within the Natural Area pilots.
The formation, in late 2019, of the Trust for Natural Areas (TNA), set in train a programme of social and ecological studies around the efficacy of the Natural Areas approach. Although the conservation science basis for re-assembling naturally-functioning landscapes within the UK was sparse at best, TNA was able to draw upon a wealth of scientific evidence internationally. TNA also embarked upon a programme of policy advocacy which promoted the idea that varied land tenure regimes – private, public and charitable – would be the best way to assemble land at the scale required.
A major boost for Brecknoll came in 2025, when over 8,000ha of pump-drained floodplain farmland was acquired by the Brecknoll Land Trust. The most recent in a string of major flood events afflicted large parts of the UK, leading to a shortage of large-volume pumps, with some areas remaining submerged for eight months into the following summer. With a similar flood event affecting the large Breck River floodplain area every other year since 2018, and with the climate scientists stating that this is likely to be the norm going forward, the viability of constant re-draining of an area that produced little farm output was passionately debated, and change was inevitable. In fact, the farmers themselves initiated discussions with the Land Trust and the Department for Countryside Stewardship, negotiating a package whereby their floodplain land was purchased by the Trust using government funds and leased back to farmers in return for delivering wetland management based on water buffalo grazing, wild fish harvesting and nature-based recreation. The farmer’s case was bolstered by an Office for Natural Enterprise study outlining the economic potential of natural wetlands in the UK. The local water company and adjacent upland farmers are now negotiating contracts with the Breck floodplain land managers that will allow modest abstraction of pooled water, stripped of nutrients and silt. Although the capital costs of land purchase were high, the tax payer ended up saving money in the longer-term because intensive river dredging and land drainage works were no longer demanded.
The National Rivers Authority (NRA) was resurrected in the face of increasingly severe flood events nationally and with the national policy decision to classify all rivers and their 1:100 year floodplains as Critical Natural Infrastructure. The NRA is charged with the duty to provide enhanced, localised flood defences for key human assets (homes, roads, power infrastructure etc) located on floodplains, which then enables the safe withdrawal of intervention from the remaining floodplain. Now, rivers and their floodplains are set aside as natural flood water storage and conveyance systems, with any land uses incompatible with these services disallowed.
Today, the pulse of flood water at Brecknoll creates an ebb and flow of water across the floodplain, bringing nutrient-rich water and much grass growth as well as prolific fish spawning and some of the best lead-free wildfowling in the UK. Breeding redshank have increased dramatically and productivity is reasonable despite some summer flooding, and lapwings have taken to nesting at high densities in wide, muddy draw-down zones as water recedes in the spring. Several species of dragonfly have arrived in southern England from the south as the temperature has increased, creating one of the richest Odonata assemblages in the country. Carefully managed kayaking safaris are increasingly popular, with visitors hiring kayaks from several guest houses that have sprung up adjacent to the NNA.
The unexpected arrival of beavers in 2020 and lynx in 2022 were presumably natural colonists from re-introductions elsewhere. Prior to this, the huge deer population had been reduced somewhat by sustainable harvesting, aimed at bringing population densities down to what spatial population modelling suggested might be expected within a landscape of this sort. These population models were developed at the Brecknoll Research Station, constructed in 2019 to host students conducting research projects within the NNA. Density estimates for the various wild grazers and browsers were derived based on likely kill rates if lynx and wolves were present, and human hunters harvested appropriate age classes of animals based on these models, bringing population densities down to what were taken to represent ‘natural’ densities. With the arrival of lynx, the models were adjusted to reflect this additive, natural mortality, and human harvesting reduced accordingly.
The Brecknoll Land Trust team conducted a research visit to Costa Rica in 2019, visiting the Guanacaste National Park. Professor Dan Janzen had gradually led the creation of this large-scale rewilding project since the 1970s, working with a local team to negotiate land deals, buying up agricultural land holdings over the decades to enable recovery of dry forest on a grand scale. Here, they heard from Professor Janzen how critical larger mammals were to the dispersal of larger seeds of some tree and tall shrub species across the landscape. Janzen went on to describe the role of these mammals in nutrient dispersal, citing work by Oxford scientists that suggested that the extinction of megafauna had greatly curtailed the spread of dung-based nutrients globally. Stressing the pivotal role of large European mammals in landscape functional ecology prior to their extirpation by people, Janzen challenged the group to set out how they intended to re-build these processes once domestic stock had been removed from the Brecknoll landscape. He lamented how European conservation practitioners appeared to be oblivious to the ‘empty forest syndrome’ that afflicted many tropical landscapes subject to heavy bushmeat hunting, and the idea that ‘trophic downgrading’ (removal of whole trophic levels due to over-hunting) was having profound effects on the long-term ecology of marine and terrestrial systems. He stressed that rewilding in ‘half-empty landscapes’, from which key large mammals have been extirpated, really isn’t rewilding at all.
This claim from a father of ecology led the group to contact Rewilding Europe to discuss how one might go about addressing the ‘half-empty landscape syndrome’ in the Brecknoll NNA pilot. A key constraint on re-instating such processes was the fact that the key mammalian participant – the aurochs – was now globally extinct.
In 2023, with not inconsiderable misgivings, the first Tauros herd was introduced. This herd comprised animals from an aurochs back-breeding scheme, which was aiming to create animals that matched as closely as possible the ecology of extinct aurochs. When these animals were first introduced, the Brecknoll landscape comprised a mosaic of non-native forestry, patches of secondary native woodland, heathland, acid and chalk grassland, and large areas of improved floodplain pasture and arable. The conservation scientists predicted that Tauros herds would most likely loiter within quiet wooded areas during the day, and venture into open grassland areas at dawn and dusk to feed. In the event, herds have concentrated within quieter, open parts of the landscape, feeding out in the open throughout the day. Satellite tracking data reveal that these animal have formed loose herds and track food resources across the landscape through the changing seasons, much as banteng do in Asia, and European bison in south-east Europe. It’s been interesting to see how the Tauros and water buffalo have segregated themselves, Tauros on the dryer uplands, buffalo down on the floodplain. Fears that Tauros herds would require supplementary feeding proved to be unfounded, and the population size has stabilised within the last eight years, suggesting that it is now ‘bottom-up’ controlled by food availability (rather than requiring ‘top-down’ control by predators). What was striking was just how rapidly ‘natural’ herd-forming and resource-tracking behaviour developed in these animals. The team is now evaluating data on the interactions of bulk-feeding Tauros and other grazing and browsing animals. It appears that ‘grazing lawns’ are developing in some of the more open areas where wild herds concentrate their feeding efforts, maintaining species-rich plant communities hitherto maintained by domestic livestock. Although English Nature continues to demand that livestock are used to maintain the target conditions of some open grassland SSSI patches within the NNA, early indications are that the mix of ‘wild’ grazers may be able to maintain these areas longer-term. The team is now discussing the introduction of horses, the theory being that these will continue to graze open areas after wild Tauros cattle have left in search of patches of taller herbage.
Although the large mammal ecologists assert that wild grazers and browsers will act as highly effective plant dispersal agents, the Land Trust team decided to undertake some wild flower dispersal experiments. The aim was to create species-rich patches of wild flowers, positioned across the large areas of improved grassland. Aided by wild grazers, plants will then disperse more widely from these ‘source’ patches through time, speeding up the process of wildflower biodiversity recovery. Local school parties have been engaged to collect seeds of various open grassland species and cultivate these at school for subsequent planting in the NNA. School groups also conduct hay-making parties as a way of gathering seeds from areas of species-rich grassland shut-up for hay to provide another local source of seed. Early on, a decision was made to collect only locally-available native wild flower material, thus maintaining the local genetic integrity. The irony of this, when set against the use of back-bred surrogates for wild aurochs, was not lost on project participants.
The Research Station, constructed with EU funding, is proving popular with students from across the UK and overseas, and from a variety of disciplines. Ecology students are investigating wild flower dispersal, the development of vegetation structure under the influence of mixed grazers and browsers, dung and corpse ecology; economics students are looking at the viability of natural enterprises and mechanisms for forming private markets for ecosystem services; social science students consider how communities responded as the view gradually evolved from a traditional farming scene to an increasingly wooded landscape with less openness and extensive areas of widely fluctuating flooding. A striking finding has been a shift in attitudes among both hunting and conservation participants, with wild meat harvesting now seen as an exciting, sustainable form of land use, and a significant decline in antagonism towards wild predators. Although homes remain in some parts of the floodplain, none have been damaged even though floodplain inundation is now annual and prolonged, with localised flood defences for clusters of homes and the raising of key roads proving highly effective.
There have been clear wildlife losses and gains here as species communities have developed with cessation of farming and resurgence of larger wild animals. Grain-eating bird species, closely associated with mixed farming, have declined with the loss of arable, but annual wild flowers now thrive in disturbed dust baths created by Tauros cattle. Water voles love the buffalo wallows and beaver dam pools. Population densities and breeding success of some species fluctuate and are difficult to predict now that species-focused management is no longer practiced within the NNA. There have been some surprises: the breeding population of corn buntings has increased dramatically within taller grassland communities, but these disperse into nearby arable dominated landscapes in winter, to feed on Stewardship-supported weedy stubbles.
Local people, initially somewhat resistant to the idea of withdrawing farming and floodplain water management, are now incredibly defensive of their Natural Area. Many could never see themselves leaving the area, and enjoy their freedom to wander and the delight they feel when a beaver family swims past or they spot a family of lynx frolicking on the slop across the river. Most visitors never see the lynx they’ve come for, but then few visitors to a haunted house are likely to see a ghost.
The above short story is, of course, entirely fictional – impossible – from today’s perspective. But will we look back in 2030 and see a collection of evolving, maturing Natural Areas, with their own constituency of passionate supporters, thriving natural enterprises and energetic programmes of biodiversity research revealing how nature can recover itself without closely tailored human intervention? And will each Natural Area be embedded within much larger landscapes of wildlife-friendly farming, through which wildlife migrates across stepping stones and corridors of farmland habitats in lively landscape mosaics? Both elements are entirely achievable in my view. For Natural Areas we could create a small number of pilot projects, perhaps in some cases taking publicly-owned land as their starting point and progressively expanding out from these via dedicated Natural Area Land Trusts, blending land purchase, leases and various forms of Conservation Concession to build scale. Such approaches have been common in the tropics for decades: in Costa Rica (where land isn’t cheap) we have Guanacaste and Monteverde; in Florida (where land certainly isn’t cheap!) we have, well, vast public land acquisitions for conservation; Colombia and Ecuador have whole cottage industries of land trusts delivering ever-expanding natural area networks. If we lack confidence, there is no shortage of experience from overseas to draw upon! We’ve tended to focus on all-important farmland biodiversity in the UK and, although this work must continue, it’s time we drew lessons from overseas and dip our toes into the restoration of low-intervention natural areas.