Something to ruminate about

I was an early enthusiast for “rewilding” at a time few people had heard of it and vividly remember a reporting visit to the nascent Carrifran Wildwood project in southern Scotland 25 years ago – in a snowstorm.

At that time the Carrifran valley was like most of the Moffat Hills – grazed into nothing much ecologically by sheep and home to a herd of destructive feral goats. Now, a quarter of a century on, it shows what can be achieved for instance by planting trees on suitable upland soils.

So I was naturally interested to read a newspaper piece on a recent “rewilding” project in Wiltshire. Lower Pertwood is a 1,000 hectare farm to the south of Salisbury Plain. Converted 30 years ago from purely arable farming into a mixed organic farm with oats, barley, other crops and suitable planting and trees, it has now undergone a further transformation.

This spring, work began on converting it into a grassland rewilding project, with low densities of pigs and cattle and other work to create “a mosaic of grass and scrubland teeming with invertebrate life”.

Well, don’t tell the yimby mob – they think “scrubland” is where we should build new towns.

Ecologists can argue about the relative value of lightly grazed chalk grassland against using the same soils for organic arable crops etc.. Those concerned with food security meanwhile will also worry about loss of Grade 3 arable land and the food it provides, even if set against low levels of beef and pork production.

Benedict Macdonald, CEO of the Farm’s consultancy, Restore, however has no doubts on either count.

“The food production system is doing a good job of destroying itself by making itself unsustainable,” he told The Guardian. “The idea that taking 2,800 acres of underperforming arable into a nature-based system is going to endanger the human food chain or the quality of the food we eat is simply not true.”

Though of course, while that may be true of 10 square kilometres of Grade 3 land, it’s not just one farm; such land is being circled nationally by house builders, distribution warehouse builders, solar and windfarm builders, road builders, industrial foresters and biodiversity-net-gain merchants. It’s also suffering from climate change which is causing droughts, floods and soil erosion. Maybe we need a second look at light, well-drained, chalk soils given current deluge conditions. Such arable land might actually be more important than those removing it would ever admit

Food security is actually an important issue, currently being bombed into silence by vested interests, notably house builders. But today I want to look at a more overarching issue – the crass way we make decisions about land-use in this country. Nowadays, all too often, that’s dominated by profit and loss.

Pertwood Farm, for instance, made a £179,000 profit in 2022 but last year that turned into a £180,000 loss thanks to £135,000 on fertiliser, £65,000 on muck and slurry, £43,000 on red diesel and £113,000 on machinery depreciation.

“The rewilded farm will cut fertiliser and these other costs to virtually zero and sell off its expensive machinery,” says the article. “Staff numbers are expected to remain the same with some retained for new roles such as grazier. Typically, rewilded estates employ more people than conventional agriculture.”

And it notes the potential revenues from BNG and from the wood pasture option in the countryside stewardship scheme which will guarantee £300,000 for 10 years.

Perhaps there is an environmental net-benefit, as well as a food security drawback, to processes like this – and far worse potential outcomes in the mix. Maybe at least BNG is deterring farmers from turning over to sitka spruce. Maybe too we should be grateful a volume house builder hasn’t yet identified Pertwood Farm as a potential site in the local planning authority’s Call for Sites.

What it does underline, however, is the urgent need we have for a system of land-use decision making that assesses all the relevant factors in the round and isn’t driven mainly by profit and loss, leavened by occasional flashes of idealism or, indeed, sentiment about traditional pasture land. Should we really be so quick, for instance, to celebrate low-density grazing while Britain’s upland area ecology is being munched away by too many sheep?

1980s dreams of rapid economic growth should be put behind us; ahead lie massive threats from climate change, international conflict, inequality and many other challenges. It’s become increasingly clear we need a much stronger and wider planning system to cut through the morass of competing demands on our land, one that isn’t simply driven by balance sheets.

Jon Reeds