Dominic Buscall is Project Manager at Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk, a farm where three different land management approaches are used to benefit wildlife.
In a recent webinar I was lucky to speak to well over 200 of you about how rewilding, regenerative farming, and traditional conservation can work together for amazing results.
Wild Ken Hill is a farm located on the west coast of Norfolk, about 3 hours from London. Although the farm always operated an environmentally sympathetic approach to farming, it’s only since 2018 that we really took stock and decided to radically alter our approach. This decision was caused by two key events: the worsening biodiversity situation in the UK coupled with the loss of EU farming subsidies following Brexit.
After seeing the figures for the dramatic drop UK in biodiversity, our team asked themselves: “What more could we do? What could a national exemplar for land management look like?” However, farming is a volatile business so we also had to consider the commercial side - 42% of UK farms are in the red without the help of EU subsidies and it’s unlikely the UK government will make up the difference. If Wild Ken Hill could create a commercially viable farming model which would also help nature to recover, we could then share their ideas with other farms and conservation areas.
We decided to adopt a “three-pronged approach” - rewilding, traditional conservation and regenerative farming. The land where Wild Ken Hill is located couldn’t support a one-size-fits-all approach. We had to consider the different geology, existing species use, and the level of soil fertility.
For the rewilding area, we decided to focus on a variety of aspects, from species reintroduction to understanding the ecology of the site itself. The research and preparation step was key, as it provided a way to prove and document the changes. Once all the information was collected, we took a step back and allowed nature to step back in. After the last harvest we soon saw a burst in wild flowers and nectar availability, naturally buzzing with butterflies and other invertebrates. In 2020, we also released beavers into a 50-acre area within the rewilding zone. Their natural behaviour is rewetting and opening up the area, boosting biodiversity and further allowing natural processes to start up.
The main difference with the traditional conservation area is that we need to be far more active in our management . With rewilding we can step back and let nature take charge, whereas with traditional conservation you must set concrete goals and then take steps in order to achieve the targets. For example, at Wild Ken Hill on the marshland, we closely monitor water levels for specific rare bird species and we manage the height of plants in the area to make it as ideal as possible for nesting. There would never be this type of ‘outcome focus’ with rewilding, as there you have confidence in nature’s approach. The objective of rewilding is to allow nature to lead, whereas with traditional conservation you set targets to help and maximise the biodiversity that is already in place.
Regenerative agriculture is a very exciting and relatively new approach to farming that focuses on soil health. Many current conventional approaches to agriculture can in fact be quite damaging to soil health, leading to soil erosion and other negative effects. We believe: “Get the soil right and everything flows from there.” Instead of fighting against nature, regenerative agriculture works hand-in-hand with it. The idea is to invest in the soil while farming. By looking after the soil, C0² sequestration is increased, as is water retention, and we also see wonderful farmland biodiversity with this approach.
Margins and headlines also provide space for nature, including the pollinators that can help us farm a better yield. When the key crops are not growing, we plant cover crops, which help to bind the soil and build soil fertility. There are major benefits for farms to work with nature. An added bonus is that the cover crops are also far more attractive to the eye!
So, what’s next for Wild Ken Hill? One of the main goals is to work on creating a connected network between nature reserves and farms throughout the UK. The idea is that this approach can become bigger, better and more connected. The farm has the idea of driving change - having change not only on our farm, but being connected with other people with a similar approach and working alongside the local community. Everyone should benefit.
We have also recently received the go ahead from Natural England to reintroduce White-tailed Eagles to west Norfolk. This is the UK’s largest native bird of prey, persecuted to extinction in England around 240 years ago. They have a magnificent 8ft wingspan, so it will be a wonderful sight for visitors and residents alike to see these birds soaring through Norfolk skies once more.
For more information on Wild Ken Hill and our work, please visit our website: https://wildkenhill.co.uk/