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Rachel Fraser: A Fork In The Road


As the climate continues to change and the urgent need for innovative solutions grows ever greater, attitudes towards what counts as ‘productive’ land use are changing too. Conservationists are now encouraging us to think more carefully about how we make use of the countryside, and to question whether we can do better for more people and the planet than simply seeking to intensify agricultural food production.

One proposed alternative is rewilding, a term defined by the charity Rewilding Britain as “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself”.

Although doing less, not more, may seem counterintuitive when the effects of the climate crisis are seen more and more frequently every day, rewilding can in fact “help reverse species extinction, tackle climate change and improve our overall health and wellbeing”.

Not everyone is convinced by the idea. Many farmers, in particular, are opposed to this new, progressive form of conservation because they see no benefit in doing nothing with the land. In fact, without the UK’s current farming of land, Joe Stanley, a Leicestershire farmer, believes that much of our food production would be off-shored “to countries with lower environmental standards”.

Another farmer, Annie Meanwell, of Low Borrowbridge Farm in Yorkshire, argues that despite the effect the agricultural industry has on the environment, “these rewilding people” do not “understand at all how much farmers do [already] for the environment”. For some time now, farmers all over the UK have been striving to reduce and offset their carbon emissions by incorporating more efficient techniques, the production of plant fuel on farms, and feed additives for cattle. The National Farmers Union has even made plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040 without reducing livestock numbers.

Having heard both sides of the debate, it is clear that how we choose to use our land is a difficult decision. However, some in the industry do not believe a strict choice between farming and rewilding is necessary. In the words of Natalie Stoppard, from Rosewood Farm in York: “We should probably get away from binaries like that and try to meet in the middle.”

Such was the attitude of Charles Burrell, when he launched the ambitious Knepp Wildland Project on his 3,500-acre estate in 2001. Through a combination of traditional agricultural techniques and progressive rewilding processes, Burrell’s team have transformed the once intensively-farmed land into a space where nature takes its own course. The grazing behaviours of farm animals, for instance, were harnessed for the natural disturbance of land, while their ability to disperse nutrients and seeds over wide areas was essential for the creation of new habitats. These efforts have led to a significant boost in the area’s biodiversity, with rare species like nightingales, peregrines and purple butterflies being spotted on the estate for the first time in decades.

What’s more, Knepp is not the only plot of land that has taken a combined approach to local nature-restoration action. Dominic Buscall, the project manager at Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk, agrees that “we need both” and that “they can work in harmony.”

Thanks to Buscall’s strategic model which “cuts through polarised debates of rewilding versus farming”, the 1,500 acres of Norfolk land are now being used to deliver benefits for people, wildlife and the climate. In some areas, grassland and shrubs have been allowed to take over farmland to help lock up carbon and improve air quality, while the introduction of beavers elsewhere on the farm aims to reduce the risk of local flooding through natural flood management. Wild Ken Hill perfectly shows “that a balanced combination of sustainable farming and rewilding” is not only “great [..] for the environment”, but also “for farmers’ bottom lines.”

Such benefits are also evident at Village Farm in Devon, where owner Rebecca Hosking, has embraced the harmonisation of agriculture and rewilding – or “agriwilding” – as a means of taking local climate action. The introduction of ‘depolluting’ plants like chicory, rather than the application of aggressive soil flushing techniques, is an example of how Rebecca approaches agriculture with a balanced, environmentally focussed mindset. To her, “agriwilding” is “a more practical answer to environmental degradation than rewilding in its ‘purest’ form.”

This ongoing debate between farming and rewilding brings hope for the future of local climate action as we are reaching a fork in the road. It may still be a while before we agree on how best to use our land, but what’s certain is that finding the answer to this question will have major implications on our local landscapes, ecosystems and climate.

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Rachel Fraser is a second-year student at Keble College, Oxford studying Chemistry. She recently took part in a micro-internship programme at Carbon Copy.

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