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Rewilding the land

We have the space but we need to collaborate and innovate to drive nature recovery and support people and communities into the future
Creag Meagaidh SBP MH

86% of land in the UK is non-urban

If we could traverse the UK in one day – that’s England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – covering some 242,495 km², we’d get a fantastic snapshot of what’s happening on the land. We’d spend:

  • Just over half the day walking across pasture and arable land 
  • Nearly a quarter of the day negotiating peatland, heathland and grasslands 
  • Around three hours comparing and contrasting coniferous, deciduous, mixed and transitional woodland 

We’d have covered 86% of the land seeing few buildings and few people. We’d realise just how green and non-urban Britain and the UK is. We’d only spend 1 hour 45 minutes moving through our urban spaces, and that would include significant chunks of urban green space, such as parks. But 83% of the population lives in this small space, covering just 6% of our land mass.

If we look at just buildings, they take up even less space. It’s estimated that all the buildings in the UK (houses, shops, offices, factories and so on) cover just 1.4% of the total land surface. Taking England alone, the most urban of the four UK nations, the figure rises to only 2%.

Looking for nature

So what nature would we see on this epic one-day traverse? The pasture and arable land, which dominates the UK’s land cover, has been impacted over decades by increasingly intensive farming, and the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides. Nature here has been mostly diminishing with birdlife and insect life struggling. 

Blanket bog and lowland raised bog, which cover 9% of the UK’s land, are the UK’s most important terrestrial carbon store, but 80% of them are in poor condition. They’ve been drained for sheep grazing, grouse shooting and tree plantations, and continue to be burned and overgrazed. 

Degraded and extracted peat bogs release rather than absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. In the UK, it’s estimated that damaged peatlands are releasing almost 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – equal to the emissions of 660,000 UK households. About half of this comes from lowland fens that have been drained and converted to agricultural use.

Our wildflower meadows, so important for wildlife, would be mostly missing from sight. Once common across the whole of Britain, Plantlife estimates we’ve lost 97% of them since the 1930s. 

We might appreciate the small fragments of native oak and pinewoods that are left, with their richer mix of plant and animal life. But these cover only 3% of the land mass. They’ve been felled over centuries, and if they’ve been replaced it’s usually been with conifer plantations (especially true in Scotland). We continue to lose what we have left, usually to infrastructure projects – the HS2 rail project, for example. Overgrazing by sheep and deer has suppressed new woodland growth across millions of acres for centuries. 

In our day of speedy traversing, we might understand why the UK is now rated as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Over 40% of species here are in decline and around one in six are facing extinction. This loss of biodiversity is more than a simple loss of our natural heritage. It’s part of a global extinction crisis, and a sign that natural processes – natural tree growth, flooding, pollination, soil enrichment – are not being allowed to work properly. 

“We are dependent on the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food we eat. We can’t be radical enough!”
Sir David Attenborough

That’s why rewilding the land, as well as our seas and waterways, has become so important. As Sir David Attenborough puts it: We are dependent on the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But it’s even more than that. We are also dependent on it for our sanity and sense of proportion. We can’t be radical enough!” Which is why, in 2020, he has called for the world to rewild.

A rewilding approach

Rewilding has the potential to reverse the catastrophic decline in species and allow nature to flourish across much larger, better connected, and much more resilient areas. Less management is needed, making it more affordable and therefore sustainable. Restoring natural processes and rebuilding ecosystems can draw down significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and tackle climate change (see our Carbon Report). 

Our ambition at Rewilding Britain is to see nature recovering across 30% of Britain’s land area by 2030. That’s equivalent to approximately 7 million hectares. We believe at least 5% of the land, approximately one million hectares, should become core’ rewilding areas, where we work to restore ecosystems on a large scale and enable nature to take care of itself. 

The remainder of the 30% should be a rich mix of high nature value land use types and protected sites, with a high level of connectivity between them. A spectrum of approaches is possible here, from rewilding to wilder farming to more nature-friendly farming. This will depend on each landowner’s circumstances and ambitions, as well as the geology, geography and wider context of their land. 

One million hectares is not a lot. There are 1.8 million hectares of deer stalking estates and 1.3 million hectares of grouse moors in Britain. In England alone, there are 270,000 hectares of golf courses. Blanket and raised bog peatlands cover around 2.3 million hectares. Marginal grade 4 and 5 agricultural land covers at least 1 million hectares. 

At Rewilding Britain, we’re particularly focused on large-scale rewilding, including helping smaller scales to join up over time. We consider large-scale to be at least 1,500 acres (approximately 600 hectares). At this scale, we’re confident that by significantly reducing management at this scale the biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits will be measurable and significant.

How can restoring nature decarbonise the UK?

Our report Rewilding and climate breakdown’ explains all

Support and collaboration

Helping the land recover is vital but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We’re all trying to make a living, and live well, in a world where change is needed. Changing our land use means supporting farmers, foresters, landowners and land managers to explore new approaches that will help them stay on their land into the future as well as helping nature. This is particularly true on marginal land.

Rewilding offers the opportunity to give nature (and us) a fighting chance of saving wildlife, boosting biodiversity and tackling climate breakdown. This will benefit us all on a large scale, but we also need to ensure it benefits local people and communities directly. It should always be about choice, as we seek a balance between people and the rest of nature where each can thrive. Embedding and connecting up core rewilding areas, within a broader mosaic of land uses, includes support for low-impact mixed forestry, nature-based tourism and high-nature value grazing.

We’re calling on the UK and devolved governments to help landowners and managers restore nature on every scale, and ensure that all can access funds and advice to help nature flourish – from working, productive land uses to large-scale rewilding. In England, this includes the specific inclusion of rewilding at scale as an option for landowners in the UK Government’s future Environmental Land Management scheme in the Agriculture Bill.

A vision of this scale is going to require a coordinated effort between landowners, communities, farmers, fishers, foresters, public bodies, NGOs, businesses and relevant experts. We hope the Rewilding Network will help by facilitating an exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas between rewilding and nature recovery projects, on a local and national level. It will also help shine a light on where positive change is happening across Britain.

Rewilding the land is about bringing nature back as much as we can, wherever we can. It won’t be everywhere, but if we look closely at the land, and how it’s being used, we can see there’s ample opportunity for restoring vital ecosystems that are the foundation of life. We need to collaborate, innovate and see the steps we need to take.


Author: Susan Wright

Main image: Creag Meagaidh — Mark Hamblin/scotlandbigpicture.com

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