New Natural Areas: time to really make space for nature and people? Guest Blog by Steve Jones

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.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in guest blogs, rewilding and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to New Natural Areas: time to really make space for nature and people? Guest Blog by Steve Jones

  1. I can’t help thinking that many of the activities that we do presently, similar to wildlife gardening and activities reflecting former land uses now uneconomic are not sustainable. I have often wondered if we could develop a number of re-wilded landscapes. I would like to see some pilot schemes similar to these being attempted.

    • stevecjjones says:

      Hi Rob
      I also wonder how sustainable some current conservation practice is. The New Natural Areas approach is designed to complement, rather than replace existing practice (such as attempting to achieve stable wildlife-friendly farming).
      The approach and scale I suggest above is already happening elsewhere, including in landscapes where land values are high and with very long histories of human land use and relatively high current human population density.
      If others can do it, we can!
      Cheers,
      Steve

  2. Pingback: Half-empty landscape syndrome | Natural Areas

  3. Mark Fisher says:

    Pretty much every ecosystem that has been studied in any great detail shows that when herbivores in the absence of predators reach their food-limited carrying capacity, it is the soil and vegetation that suffers degradation. This is the definition of overgrazing due to an excess of herbivory, and is typified by agricultural systems, locations where predators have been extirpated, and those who think that a “process-led approach” that sees herbivores enslaved behind fences is natural, as at the Oosvardersplassen, or in conservation grazing. This overgrazing is what will happen in your fictionalised system when the population size has stabilised through being controlled by food availability.

    Overgrazing by definition could not occur in an ecosystem with an intact predator fauna where grazing effects could be considered to be natural and undisturbed. It’s a question of cycles and the direction of flux, the growth of vegetation set against its consumption by herbivores, and with the large carnivores applying a controlling effect on numbers of herbivores, as well as creating a spatial heterogeneity to the herbivore impact through a landscape of fear. A predator-limited carrying capacity is a reset downwards of the offtake of annual vegetation growth thus reversing the degradation of vegetation and soil. Wild nature is not in the business of extirpating itself – this is its “mechanism” to keep all the elements of the ecosystem, the herbivores, the carnivores as well as the full range of vegetation.

    The natural enterprises that you advocate for NNAs, and the conditional subsidies based on a fixed flux direction that you expect them to receive, continues the incorrigible multi-layered connection between land and money that always ends up killing wild nature. It is in this fencing and grazing that so many boundaries are crossed and re-crossed. It points to the need for the link between land and income to be broken, that the land has to have a break from farming, especially from the fake farming of enslaved, allegedly functional replacements, to be able to restore and enrich itself, because we will never have truly wild land without it. The actions of wild nature have no purchase cost, just a will to let land be nature-led.

    • stevecjjones says:

      Hi Mark – good to hear from you.
      You’re correct of course that landscapes from which predators have been extirpated tend to see an over-abundance of grazers and browsers, which in turn affect vegetation structure. All but the largest grazers/browers are top-down controlled by predators in natural systems, as you say (although the relative strength of top-down and bottom-up controls in natural systems is still passionately debated by top-notch ecologists. I’m just a writer but am very much in the ‘top-down’ camp). I attempted to address this concern by suggesting, above that the abundance of grazers and browsers could be ‘top-down’ controlled by people, but stating that our role might decline as predators (lynx above) appear. That won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s worth trialing in some areas.
      I didn’t mention Oosvardersplassen and didn’t have it in mind when writing the above – it’s too small and the herbivores are over-abundant, in my view.
      Opinions vary and debate is healthy.
      Cheers,
      Steve

      • Mark Fisher says:

        Hallo Steve – you might like to look at the ideas behind Wilderculture, which is at least honest that it’s about meat production through “holistic planned grazing” by moving livestock around in a way that approximates the spatial distribution effect of the fear of large carnivores, and where “humans act as the predator” through harvesting the livestock, rather than there be large carnivores in the system – it is dubbed as a “predator-less form of rewilding using grazing animals as tools”.
        http://wilderculture.com/ecological/
        http://www.rootsofnature.co.uk/wilderculture/

        I don’t like its association with “rewilding” but then its contemporary with the drift in meaning of the word as pushed by the herbivorists.

      • stevecjjones says:

        Hi Mark. Yep, I’ve seen the Wilderculture thinking and have to confess I’m not that keen personally but everyone’s entitled to express their opinions.
        I’m not sure who the ‘herbivorists’ are, but assume you label the lynx folks as ‘carnivorists’? I’ve worked on plant conservation, herbivore conservation, predator conservation, and I prefer to think in terms of interactions between all trophic levels – plants, herbivores, predators. I’m not sure what label I deserve!
        Cheers,
        Steve

  4. Pingback: New Natural Areas: time to really make space for nature and people? Guest Blog by Steve Jones | Natural Areas

  5. As a person who has lived and worked in the farming community of the English Lake District all of my life, i see glimmers of light in this hypothetical scenario. Then i cringe at the lack of understanding (yet again) as to how communities live work and exist in places like the Lake District. The most productive areas within our lakeland are the valley bottoms. Take these out of production and you lose the farms ability to make winter fodder, lamb fell sheep in the Spring and tup them in the Autumn. You effectively kill the farm.

    Please get past the “them and us” scenarios and quaint little stewardship schemes you throw out there to passify or keep the farmer “on side”. WE ALL want to enhance our rural areas and protect our communities from fire flood and famine. We can only do this by balancing sustainable food production together with sensible and compatible conservation. It can be done but not by blanket re- wilding or yet more extensification. Every valley is different. Nay every farm is different. Lynx and Water Buffalo? Cloud cuckoo land if you think this will work in Cumbria, which incidentally is the largest red meat and milk producing county in England, for a reason!

    Your science baffles me. I am not an academic as you can see by my writing, but i do understand my county and its communties and your comments lead me to beleive that some of you are horribly remote from the reality and consequences of what is being suggested as sensible land use in future decades.

    I am absolutely convinced that our farmers need to learn how to manage the soils better, produce “more from less” and conserve those areas which most need it or are most suitable to it. Above all this, farmers and conservationists need to do this together in a spirit of cooperation and understanding. A common set of goals can be agreed and acted upon. it will never happen if we seriously continue with the policy of reducing livestock, getting rid of farmers and attempting to sell re- wilding as a sustainable policy.

    There will be 85M people to feed by 2050. If we don’t provide enough food, there will be no natural environments and habitats left. Here’s the rub; as demand for food increases, and pressure on fresh water supplies grow, farmers will receive more money for their produce. The demand for production may overtake the reward for conservation. This being the case, might we see a return to increased stocking on the fells? and a rise in the beef suckler herd?

    I truly believe that balance is the key to successful future land use policies.

    I write this from the heart and with a passion to find a way forward to keep our farms working as sustainable production units and at the same time improving our eco- systems and protecting communities. Farmers are the key to all of this! I absolutely agree that debate is healthy and if i can get past some of the scientific- speak which has rather baffled me, i think that there are elements that many of actually might agree on. Perhaps it is a starting point!

  6. Northernpeasant says:

    Have to agree with Adam about farming and nature. They can, and do, work hand in hand to support eco-systems. But more than this I’m completely baffled by much of this blog. There’s talk about top down in terms of control of predators.What about top down in terms decison making and who gets to decide what’s “natural” in a natural area and where it’s located? By all accounts in this scenario the local people – yes , the men, women and children who live in a proposed natural area don’t get a say, unless they have land to sell. Or maybe this is a sparsley populated area, so there aren’t many local people anyway and moving them on /out (we don’t mention “clearance”) is not a social justice issue/ denial of human rights ?

    I find that leaving local people out of scenarios such as this unconvincing and quite frankly worrying.

    • stevecjjones says:

      Hi Northernpeasant (from a southern peasant!)
      Thanks for your comments – much appreciated.
      I’d see this very much as ‘bottom-up’, i.e. community-led – that’s the only way conservation works in the real world. I see no harm in others helping out though. There are innumerable examples of collaborations blending bottom-up and top-down working. I do mention local people above, but I don’t mention and would oppose any attempt to move people out/in – so we’re in agreement there.
      I did actually talk about private landowners above, so I don’t get why you think I’m only talking about those wanting to sell land.
      I was referring to top-down control of herbivores rather than predators, in an ecological sense.
      In heavily managed nature reserves and in wildlife-friendly farming, ‘we’ decide what’s natural; in Natural Areas, I suggest that nature decides what’s natural.
      I agree with you and Adam that farming and wildlife can, and in some examples do, work hand in hand – I think I said as much in bold and italics in the opening paragraph.
      I’m not sure why you’re worried about local people being left out because I suggest the oposit.
      Cheers,
      Steve

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