Rewilding in the UK countryside

26 March 2020 | Applicable law: England and Wales

Whatever the outcome, Brexit and the replacement of the EU Common Agricultural Policy will precipitate a significant change in the way we manage our land. At one end of the management spectrum, rewilding will enable landowners to play a role in reinstating natural processes to the UK’s ecosystems. Some argue that rewilding has the potential to revitalise not only natural landscapes, but also struggling rural communities.

At a time when environmental sustainability is high on the government’s agenda, rewilding and other forms of sustainable land use management are being examined closely as a way to achieve Net Zero Carbon. To give an example of scale, some environmental campaigners claim that if £1.9 billion of the £3 billion currently spent on CAP payments was allocated to rewilding projects covering over 6 million hectares, this could sequester 47 million tonnes of CO2 each year – this represents more than 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions .

It is clear that the government is taking note of public pressures relating to climate change commitments and also to the protection of the UK’s natural landscapes. Subsidy payments are being directed away from traditional agricultural subsidies towards payments of ‘public money for public goods’. For example, the recent publication of the Agriculture and Environment Bills cement the introduction of payments under the Environmental Land Management Scheme, focused on environmental protection, soil improvement and animal welfare standards.

There is obviously concern from those that own and manage the land that traditional agricultural income streams will be affected by these changes, as well as wider societal changes such as the decrease in consumption of meat and dairy products. However, rewilding can be reframed as an economic opportunity. It is already clear that wildlife tourism generates income, with the osprey estimated to bring in £3.5 million a year to Scotland. Similarly, the reduction in popularity of overseas flights due to greenhouse gas emissions has led to a rise in ‘staycations’. With staycations expected to add over £27 million to the UK’s economy in 2020, landowners are in a prime position to capitalise from this trend by providing rural retreats. The coronavirus outbreak brings this opportunity in to sharp focus, with more families deciding not to travel abroad for their holidays.

Rewilding projects do not have to take place on a large scale. Technology is increasingly being used to identify those parts of an Estate which are profitable for animal and arable farming and those that are not. Even within a single field there may be discrepancies in profitability; and areas deemed unprofitable for traditional farming purposes may be found to be suitable for small scale rewilding. Funding can currently be obtained for small scale field trials through the Countryside Stewardship Schemes and Entry Level Stewardship, offering between £300-£400 per hectare for field corners turned over to rewilding. It is unclear whether these payments will continue following Brexit, however the government has been at pains to assure landowners that they will not be penalised for entering stewardship schemes in the interim period before the new system is introduced.

Aside from subsidies, a maturing carbon trading market is taking shape, and landowners are well placed to take advantage of such a market by sequestering carbon. Forestry is a key land use for carbon sequestration and is likely to provide opportunities for many landowners. A key concern will be whether to sell the carbon that is attached to a parcel of land or to lease it, and if so, for how long. This market is changing and appears to behave differently in different countries, so clients will be advised to tread carefully until it becomes properly established.

While the political, economic and social context remains uncertain, it is clear that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach in the coming era of land management. Rewilding has the potential to offer environmental benefits in improving biodiversity, natural flood resilience and carbon emission reductions and sequestration. It also has the potential to bring economic benefits to rural communities through ecotourism and diversification of income streams. However, any approach to rewilding has to take into account the myriad of differing local contexts, demographic and history. Withers, and in particular the Rural Team, are well placed to assist with the variety of legal issues arising from rewilding projects, both now and in the future.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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