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Environment

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

From beavers to bison, rewilding is helping make the UK wild again. Its future depends on better access to cold, hard cash

Trees for Life, Dundreggan Rewilding Centre Open Day 15th April 2023.

Beavers are back in London. For the first time in 400 years, a family of wild beavers are calling the capital their home, nibbling away at trees and building dams in a nature reserve in west London. They didn’t find their way to Greenford accidentally, however. Their presence is a testament to a growing rewilding movement across the UK.

Rewilding can take many different forms, whether reintroducing lost and endangered species, turning over farmland to nature, or reducing the risk of flooding. Its benefits extend beyond the chance of a brief encounter with a beaver – it’s playing a leading role in tackling the climate crisis and boosting biodiversity.

But it can also come up against challenges, with funding often scarce and public attitudes sometimes skeptical.

Where is rewilding happening in the UK?

Rewilding is happening all across the UK, with projects spanning urban centres and rejuvenated countryside.

It’s not just beavers. Free-roaming bison have been reintroduced to Kent, and Caledonian forest is being restored in Scotland to bring new habitats for golden eagles.

At Knepp Wildland in West Sussex, a project has given rise to nightingales and purple emperor butterflies. At Broughton Sanctuary in North Yorkshire, a new initiative has helped reduce flood levels.

“As rewilding projects continue to develop, the myriad of benefits provided by rewilding – for nature, wildlife, the climate and people – are becoming more apparent. There is also a huge diversity of approaches and landscapes being rewilded, across hundreds of rewilding projects throughout Britain,” says Rebecca Wrigley, CEO of Rewilding Britain.

Rewilding Britain channels money to projects around the country. It has supported initiatives including a network in Hampshire, studying the possibility of bringing white-tailed eagles back in numbers to Scotland, and restoring 100 miles of coastline across Sussex and Kent.

Communities are getting increasingly involved, too, says Wrigley: “Last year, Trees for Life in the Highlands of Scotland launched the first Rewilding Centre, and the Langholm Initiative completed the largest-ever community buyout of land in southern Scotland, showing how rewilding can bring a community together to restore treasured landscapes and create job opportunities.”

Do farmers get paid to rewild?

Farmers do get paid to rewild – but it’s a complicated and inconsistent web of funding.

Brexit saw money disappear from farmers’ pockets. That was the driving force behind the Environmental Land Management (ELM) programme, announced as the UK’s replacement subsidy for Common Agricultural Policy funding. As well as sustainable farming, the project also supported farmers wishing to give over land to wildness and struggling species, and aimed to reach £800m in funding a year by 2028.

An aerial shot of the tree nursery at Dundreggan rewilding centre
The Dundreggan rewilding centre. Image: Ashley Coombes

It has not had a smooth path, finding itself imperilled during Liz Truss’s brief reign, and then saved in January 2023. Critics, including the National Farmers Union and parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, have said the rollout of ELM funding has been too slow and included too little detail for farmers to realistically take advantage of.

“New public and private mechanisms for financing rewilding are emerging but the ‘market’ for funding and investment is still confused, fragmented and non-standardised,” says Wrigley. 

“This is restricting rewilding practitioners from accessing the funding they need to upscale rewilding initiatives. It is also limiting private finance from finding large-scale investable propositions. We need increased, diversified and stable financing streams to give both rewilding practitioners and investors the confidence to make long-term, high-integrity investment decisions.”

Without functional central government funding, rewilding lies in the hands of landowners and farmers. Yet crop farmers are looking at a 58% fall in income this year, leaving little spare cash. Jeremy Clarkson, who finds himself as possibly the UK’s best-known farmer since Old McDonald, put the dilemma as such in a column: “Rewilding’s great, if you don’t mind going hungry.”

Other funds are stepping in. In London, the Ealing Beaver Project is part of Sadiq Khan’s Rewild London Fund, which awarded over £1m in 2023 to initiatives including the creation of new wetlands in Alexandra Park and Clapham Common, as well as mink trapping. A pair of funds run by Rewilding Britain – the Innovation and Challenge funds – also invite bids for ambitious projects.

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