One of Heal's founders, Jan Stannard, talks about the reason for setting up a new rewilding charity in the UK. This article originally appeared as a Guest Blog on https://markavery.info/ on Heal's launch day, 30 March 2020. Thank you to Mark Avery for his permission to reproduce it here.
Tranquil, quiet, beautiful: until about a week ago, those are the sort of adjectives most people would have used to describe being out in the countryside on a fine Spring day. But now, two other less familiar words are coming to the fore as we escape from lockdown into nature: solace and safety.
The hashtag #solaceinnature is trending on Twitter. For me, Wendell Berry’s phrase ‘coming into the peace of wild things’ describes better than anything the effect upon the soul of going into nature. Since life became surreal, like watching a sci-fi movie and being in it at the same time, the solace that Berry so lyrically describes is suddenly magnified. Anyone reading this is going to understand the antidote we get from the first chiffchaff, bee fly or brimstone. Nature’s disdain for this existential human drama is oddly comforting.
And at the moment, so long as you keep your distance, being out in nature is a way to feel completely safe.
So it’s struck me in the last few days that it’s the greatest irony to realise that even as we find safety in nature, nature isn’t safe from us. We are the greatest threat it has ever faced.
I reckon anyone signed up to Mark’s blog carries around a persistent, low-level anxiety about the state of nature, an anxiety that regularly morphs into rage or despair. I’ve realised that going out into standard, depleted British countryside is an exercise in noticing absence. I live in Maidenhead in the heavily trafficked and concreted M4 corridor and these days, I sometimes don’t bother with my binoculars on a walk because I know there won’t be much to see. When I first became involved in local wildlife work, I coined the phrase ‘just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s biodiverse’, to try to get people see the problem.
A trip to Bulgaria in May last year was an object lesson in shifting baseline syndrome – the profusion of wildflowers and birds was at once both extraordinarily wonderful and profoundly depressing.
You know when the urge to do something becomes too strong to ignore? And then an idea turns up which will fix some important things. That must be the point Mark, Chris and Ruth reached when they set up Wild Justice. Me, I got the feeling about two years ago and the idea last July, when the cogs turning in my head suddenly meshed.
The cogs were many, some lifelong, some new: the State of Nature reports, the loss of swifts, the frogs and toads disappearing from our garden, the sparrows in London disappearing, reading Feral, reading Wilding, then visiting the Knepp Estate and hearing nightingales, cuckoos and turtle doves as if it was 1919 not 2019. The central cog is a love of nature. Since I was tiny, I loved all of it, tadpoles, ants, woodlice, worms, birds…. The tawny owl I made from an old sock was one of my finest moments in the Brownies.
How can you let something you love die, if you can do something to try to save it?
I knew more needed doing to reverse habitat loss and species declines. I saw a clear gap in provision and how to fill it. My idea could make a big difference if I could pull it off.
And my mitochondrial DNA, bless it, carries an irrepressible tendency to cheerfulness and an innate sense of hope and optimism. I have a strong sense that if I apply myself to something that makes sense and believe there are a lot of other good people around to help out, we can fix stuff by cracking on together.
The gap that I spotted last year was for a dedicated, practical organisation at a national scale which could tap into the collective yearning to do something significant about nature recovery.
That’s how I came to set up a new rewilding charity called Heal. Our name is our purpose: heal the land, heal nature, heal ourselves. The last bit is central – the solace I mentioned right at the start. Never has the need to come into the peace of wild things been greater.
The existing conservation charities do an amazing job but I saw that Heal could be a strategic, not-for-profit ‘rewilding landowner’. We would be the next level down from Rewilding Britain, who lead on supporting large-scale pioneering projects, talking to Government and briefing MPs, speaking at conferences, producing strategic reports like Rewilding and Climate Breakdown, and helping large landowners.
We launch today (30 March 2020) and we didn’t for one moment consider pausing because of the pandemic. Nature can’t wait and we have no idea what will happen now to the admirable Government aims https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan to restore and create 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitat. Our hope is that work will proceed steadily forward, but our fear is that a recession, or even an economic depression, will divert all thoughts towards just one species.
We now have six trustees and the inimitable Ted Green as our founding patron. We also have a network for young rewilders called Heal Future and are inviting applications for an advisory panel of ten 14-30 year olds, to be led by 26-year-old Hannah Needham.
Even though this Spring is, unequivocally, the worst possible time to be launching a charity, it could turn out to be the best of times for one focused on nature recovery. Rewilding isn’t just another type of land use; it’s come to represent hope. All is not lost, people say, something can be done. We all need something good to focus on, to anticipate, to relish. The young are absolutely taken by the resurgence of nature when it’s given space to breathe. They know we are close to losing what a lot of us took for granted.
I’m also certain that material possessions will no longer have the same lustre after this force 12 on the Beaufort scale for pandemics passes. There won’t be the money for ‘stuff’ and many of us have more than enough already. Rapid economic growth is surely not a sustainable model in the face of the climate emergency and our ecosystems cannot withstand it. So the Heal team has the strongest belief that now is the moment when the charity was meant to begin.
We need to raise around £7 million from good people and good companies by 2022 for our foundation project. That money will be enough for us to buy about 500 acres/200ha of lower-grade land, chosen using Lawton’s principles and with reference to emerging Nature Recovery Networks. Imagine if we were surrounded by nature-friendly farmers with wildlife corridors stretching out in all directions to join up with other wildlife-rich habitats.
We will rewild the land and convert associated buildings into learning spaces, accommodation and staff offices. The site will be fully enclosed and around half the land will remain inaccessible except to staff and volunteers.
We want our foundation project to be in the English lowlands. Land in farther-flung areas is cheaper and has more potential for scale, but there need to be nature recovery areas everywhere, not just for reasons of biodiversity but so they are within relatively easy reach of large cities. After that we want to establish a series of Heal sites across the UK.
To inspire a direct sense of involvement in rewilding by ordinary people, we’ve come up with a really unusual idea called Heal 3x3. This links rewilding with people donating small amounts of money and the what3words global addressing system, which assigns three-word addresses to every 3m x 3m square on earth, in the form ///ground.ripe.closed, for example.
An individual donation of £20 will enable Heal to buy 3m x 3m of land. When a project funding target is reached and Heal acquires a land holding, the what3word addresses covering the area to be rewilded will be compiled. Each square will then be randomly assigned to a personal donor. People will be able to view the exact location of their square, or squares, by entering the what3words address into the what3words online map or free app for iOS and Android, using a map or satellite view. Though donors won’t own the land, we think this connection will give every supporter a strong sense of being part of a valuable and inspiring rewilding project.
When a site opens for visitors, donors will be welcome to visit and, if their square is in an accessible section, look out from paths over the area which contains it. And here’s the cream on the cake – we can program a drone with the what3words co-ordinates so that, for a further donation amount still to be finalised, photographs of squares can be taken and sent to the donor so that they can monitor the progress of the rewilding of ‘their’ square.
We don’t expect to raise all we need from the general public, certainly not in these uncertain times. We’re also seeking support from companies and charitable foundations. There are compelling reasons for companies to become involved with Heal, from corporate responsibility to employee engagement and sustainability. We’ll also approach the Government to discuss securing a share of the Nature for Climate Fund.
This work is both urgent and lifelong. Ted Green talks about thinking in ‘tree time’. Long after I’ve shuffled of this mortal coil, Heal will have created a network of sanctuaries in the UK where nature can flourish again and where people can go, to rest up, to find peace and to learn about our country’s amazing creatures, plants and trees.
I can’t wait to get cracking.