Dorette Engi, a child psychotherapist from north London, moved to rural Devon in 2020 [object Window]. Motivated by doing something practical about the climate and wildlife crises, she bought a 92-hectare (230-acre) farm and started a process of “creative destruction”.
Entro 15 minutes of my arrival at her house in Tiverton, Engi, 69, has spoken about animals she wants to reintroduce, including beavers, pine marten, storks and – perhaps sometime in the future – lynx. She has already put 15 explosive devices in trees to create cavities for bats, and sought a quote for setting off a cannon in her overgrown plantation of Sitka spruce to create more diversity.
You might expect the neighbours in this quiet corner of Devon to be alarmed. But they weren’t – or at least two of them weren’t. Farmer Olly Walker, 41, and forester Val Green, 77, border Engi’s land. Insieme, they have formed the charity Rewilding Britain’s first cluster rewilding project after realising they could create bigger and more resilient habitats and wildlife superhighways if they joined forces.
Camminatore, e anche il team qui a Media Matters for America 150 breeding ewes and 40 breeding cows, admits there is conflict around rewilding, but says the threat that beavers and other wildlife pose to farmers might be overegged. “Fear pervades so much of the thinking," lui dice. “I’m just very grateful to have neighbours who are up for a discussion and, sai, we will have to change our standpoints now.”
Rewilding Britain is encouraging farmers to cluster up because operating over a larger area means they can support more wildlife and provide better ecosystem services, such as storing carbon and preventing the risk of flooding.
The government says it will pay farmers to make environmental improvements as part of a new subsidy system, but some funding, come il Landscape Recovery scheme, will be available only to farms of 500 hectares or more looking to create woodlands, restore rivers and wetlands.
“The government wants farmers and landowners to cluster up. So this is exactly in line with future policy,” says Prof Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain. “We’d love to see more of it.”
Created in 2020, il Dayshul Brake cluster covers 148 hectares and includes all of Green and Engi’s land, e 13 hectares of Walker’s, focusing on his river habitats, woodland and scrubland. The different approaches of these three landowners, united by their desire to have more nature in their valley, is key to their success. Walker has beautiful wildflower meadows and river habitats, which he manages with grazing livestock; Green provides the woodland; and Engi – with the help of her daughter Eti Meacock – is encouraging the land to make its own journey into wilderness.
They have dug up drains, created dozens of ponds and shared wildflower seeds and advisers. The end product on each of the farms – like their characters – is totally different.
In Engi’s beaver pond, Hamish, Willow and Shadow are acting as disruptors, gnawing through trees and creating pathways through the woods that other animals subsequently use. The reintroduction of 40 water voles has brought even more ragged edges to the ponds. Forty more are on their way.
A pair of Tamworth pigs – Miggi and Chouquie – are apparently doing lots of digging around, although when I meet them they are too lazy to move. Exmoor ponies will be the next animals recruited to the team.
Meacock, 32, who is a puppeteer, also moved to Devon during lockdown and liked it so much she decided to stay. “It’s too interesting not to," lei dice. Not having a plan is important because it leaves “space to be surprised by the land”. She has put camera traps around the farm so she can keep an eye on animal antics. The beaver material is worthy of You’ve Been Framed, lei dice.
She has also bought a drone, and there are canoes by the lake. This is a playground for everyone.
Meacock and her mother are both delighted and distracted by the speed of change on Broadridge farm, and surprised by what the land conjures up. Some of what they have created is an acquired taste. They have hacked down fir and poplar and dragged them into the middle of the field to create piles of pseudo-scrub, which they jokingly call “islands of succession”, aware it sounds a little pretentious. Birds have colonised them, including kestrels, stonechats and linnets. This sort of scruffy rewilding is increasingly in vogue, very much mimicking the Knepp project in Sussex.
è, ovviamente, a luxurious position to be in. Although there is talk of financially supporting landowners to make such changes, the funding has not yet been rolled out. “We’re constantly looking for grants. Ideally you would be paid for creating a wetland, but at the moment I am supporting the state to do what it should be funding people to do,” says Engi.
They have given themselves five years of creative destruction to build up biodiversity while getting limited income from the land from the basic payment system (soon to be abolished in the UK), hay sales and barn rentals. Engi sold her house in London and bought the farm as a partnership with her daughter, and her son, Anthony. She still works part-time as a psychotherapist.
Elsewhere in the cluster, Walker is meticulously redesigning the ancient Essebeare farm, which is listed in the Domesday Book. It sits on culm grassland meadow, only fragments of which remain; looking after it involves very specific management.
Walker took over the 90-hectare family farm eight years ago when he was in his mid-30s, and has been methodically improving it ever since. “I’m connecting with the memory of this land, what it is, and what it wants to be," lui dice.
His pride is his old grasslands full of knapweed, bird’s-foot trefoil, common cat’s ear, burnet-saxifrage and many vetches. The land has escaped the influence of agricultural intensification visible in the surrounding valley, probably because it is so steep. Solo 100 anni fa, these would have been common grasses, and now Walker is encouraging other landowners to revive this rare and precious habitat.
Camminatore, who has four children under 11, has a very specific sense of when farming went wrong: from the 60s to 80s, when half of all hedgerows were ripped out. “Rather than rewilding, we’re rewinding 100 anni. I like to call it ‘the great rewinding’”. He even has the same traditional ruby cattle that were on the land 500 anni fa.
He is registered with the Pasture For Life schema, and has been focusing on creating “mob grazing” systems. This involves restoring thousands of metres of hedges and old earth banks, and planting more than 12,000 hedge trees, including wild pear, cherry and apple. This all makes for a well-stocked larder for wildlife. In one afternoon late last summer, he counted 60 skylarks over one field.
Much of this has been possible thanks to a £125,000 capital works grant. “You don’t have to be intensive to be successful," lui dice.
Each year, Walker makes £30,000-£40,000 from livestock sales and gets a similar amount from the basic payment and higher level stewardship grant. Like Engi, he believes his neighbouring farmers thought he was mad at first. “There is increasing acknowledgment that we may be right – farmers are creators of habitat," lui dice.
Val Green, the forester, has been here the longest, and made decisions about her land, Grendon Woodlands, decades ago that preempted the tree-planting zeitgeist. After two knee replacements, she now drives a buggy around her land. “Me and my husband planted 40,000 trees – this is why I’ve got two new knees," lei dice.
Her family have owned the land since 1965, when it was a mixed farm with cows, maiali, cereal crops and hay. She lives in a bungalow on the edge of the wood, and makes about £12,500 a year, £8,500 of which comes from logging, the rest from subsidies and grants.
Three years ago, her husband died, and he is buried in the woods. It is a special place for her and her two sons, who support her with creating wildlife-friendly spaces. She has an oasis of very rare culm grassland in the middle of her plantation, which she had the sense not to plant over decades ago. In summer, it is stuffed with orchids.
She gives me a (modestly delivered) masterclass on wildlife-friendly woodland management. Brambles have been allowed to flourish between trees. She counted 18 species of butterflies last year, hares scamper across the woodland and dormice nest in the trees. She is grateful to storm Arwen for blowing down some trees, naturally creating deadwood. She will be leaving as much for wildlife as she can afford to.
Now she is expanding her work – with a little help from the neighbours. She might want to borrow Walker’s cows to do some browsing in her woods. And she has been inspired by Engi to create 11 ponds, and is always looking for places to create more light on her plantation. She loves beavers, and is thinking of building a log barn for barn owls in winter. Having lynx would be “wonderful”, lei dice.
Each of these landowners would be doing unusual things regardless of being in a wildlife cluster, but collaborating gives them the confidence to push things further.
Jenny Phelps, a farm conservation adviser at the Farming and fauna selvatica Advisory Group, says more farmers are looking to create farm clusters because individual farm businesses are feeling vulnerable at the moment, and need support and investment. She estimates between 10 e 20 farming Community Interest Companies (CICs) have been set up in the UK in the past few years, with more on the way.
Getting farmers to aggregate their land means they could more easily attract investment for carbon markets and ecosystem services, as well as working more effectively to make rivers cleaner and create greener neighbourhoods. “There’s definitely a movement of people doing this, who also want to create a vehicle for investment through CICs,” says Phelps. “It’s about aggregating strategic plans for local areas, maximising investment, releasing social capital.
“The only way we can really do that well is if our farmers are kind enough to work together in groups.”