Boosting our policy and campaigns work

Guy Shrubsole, the author of Who Owns England?, joins the Rewilding Britain team

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Guy Shrubsole founded the Who Owns England? website looking at land ownership issues
19/01/2021

Guy Shrubsole recently joined us at Rewilding Britain as policy and campaigns co-ordinator. Guy is the author of Who owns England? and is a keen champion of people’s rights of access to nature and the countryside. He’ll be focusing on our influencing and campaigns work as we tackle the challenges and opportunities to make more rewilding happen across Britain.

Why rewilding?

Rewilding, to me, offers hope. It’s one of the most exciting ideas in environmentalism, because it doesn’t just seek to prevent things getting worse or manage decline, but rather promises a better future — a wilder, richer, more diverse one. Like many people it was reading George Monbiot’s book Feral that first opened my eyes to rewilding’s potential, and to the concept of shifting baselines’ — how we’ve become so accustomed to seeing degraded ecosystems and accepting them as normal. As a keen hiker, that chimed with my experiences of rambling through barren upland landscapes dominated by grouse moor management and overgrazing. Over subsequent years I visited the Knepp Estate, and also several beaver reintroduction projects in Cornwall and Scotland, and saw how different a landscape looks when natural processes are allowed to take charge again. Not only is it a healthier environment, it’s a more exciting one to be in.

What are you hoping to contribute to the organisation?

I’m joining Rewilding Britain as its Policy and Campaigns Coordinator — I’m going to be planning and delivering a coordinated strategy across our policy influencing and campaigning work. For the past eight years I’ve been a campaigner at Friends of the Earth so I hope to bring to Rewilding Britain that experience of campaigning and winning using campaigns to secure policy changes. There’s huge public interest in rewilding. We need to turn that interest into a movement that takes political action.

You’ve written a book, Who Owns England? How did that come about and what have been the biggest challenges in attempting to pull together a picture of who owns England?

As an environmentalist I’ve long been fascinated by how we use — and abuse — the land. And who owns land has a big say over how it’s used. But when I started looking into who owns land in England, I found it incredibly hard to uncover. Why was it so hard to answer such a simple question? That hooked me into investigating and digging further. The official Land Registry for England & Wales has been around for over 160 years, yet it still hasn’t finished registering the ownership of all land — and much of what it has registered remains guarded behind paywalls. It only costs £3 to uncover the owner of land title — who owns a field or a building, say — but there are 24 million land titles registered with the Land Registry; so that’s a cool £72m to find out who owns them all. 

The reason for this secrecy, of course, is that ownership of land has long been bound up with questions of wealth and power, and concealing ownership has been part and parcel of preserving that power. But how landowners use their land has implications for almost everything: where we build our homes, how we grow our food, how much space we leave for nature. We all have a stake in how land is used, even if we don’t own any ourselves. 

How do you think rewilding fits in with land ownership?

I think large landowners have an obligation to help fix the climate emergency and extinction crisis — and a growing number are now starting to do so through rewilding. The landowners profiled in RB’s Rewilding Network are doing incredible work to restore nature and natural processes to their land. Many more are considering doing so.

But there’s much more work that needs to be done, and many landowners who aren’t yet on board. The uplands of England, for instance, are prime sites for rewilding, but are currently dominated by intensively-managed grouse moor estates, whose heather-burning practices are drying out the deep moorland peat, and where illegal raptor persecution is endemic. I suggested in Who Owns England? that rather than devote an area of England the size of Greater London to shooting grouse, the aristocracy ought to be giving over that acreage to rewilding our desiccated landscapes”. 

More recently, in my work at Friends of the Earth, I worked with the botanist Tim Harris to look at how England’s largest institutional landowners use their land, by mapping the habitats present on their estates. We found that the Church Commissioners, for instance, have just 3% woodland cover, despite the Church of England declaring part of its mission is to safeguard creation’. Perhaps the biggest prize of all, of course, would be for the Royal family to rewild the land they own — something I wrote about for the journal Inkcap last year. If influential landowners like these took a lead, many others would surely follow.