WRead James Beard’s Hen Farms Seeing Isabella Tree To rebuild the land stretching from her property in Sussex down to the sea in Shoreham, he called Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, and told them: “You’re going to the wrong part of the coast—you’ve got the last few.”
Now Baird, who describes himself as an “arable farmer” who actually owns the last slice of West Sussex’s undeveloped coast in Climping Gap, across from Worthing to Shoreham, is the driving force behind the creation of a green, wildlife-rich lane that connects the reconstructed Kneipp estate By sea.
The Wild to Waves Project It aims to create at least 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of nature-friendly land in corridors that stretch from the rolling Weald Hills down the valleys of the Arun and Adur rivers to enhance biodiversity on land and at sea.
An ambitious nature restoration scheme is set to receive a major boost this summer with the government announcing a multi-million-pound “landscape restoration” pilot program, one of the new Environmental Land Management (ELMS) schemes.
“Restoring nature is not a fad, it’s a necessity,” said Baird, who grows peas for bird’s eye and wheat for Hovis on 530 hectares. “If we don’t make space for nature, who will pollinate the crops in the future? We can’t preserve our soils unless we rebuild them.”
Bird is among eight major landowners who have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to create a wildlife-rich corridor from Knepp to the sea. They were joined by nearly 50 other farmers in bidding to fund “landscape restoration” in the Arun and Ador valleys. If one or both of these bids are successful, the Weald to Waves project will be shipped.
More and more farmers are signing up, Baird said, often for practical reasons as they look for more sustainable ways to produce food and sources of financing amid rising fertilizer prices. Diocesan councils are also joining the project along with charities including Sussex Wildlife Fund and protectors Ashdown Forest.
Cultivation of river valleys in more nature-friendly ways will reduce sediment leaching into the sea and promote the health of Sussex’s kelp ponds, which are being restored after Banning trawling led by fishermen Protected 117 square miles of coastal waters last year.
The Weald to Waves project represents an extraordinary shift in the attitudes of landowners and farmers towards rebuilding in Knepp In the 22 years since its inception. In the early years, the former 1,400-hectare dairy farm was shunned among its neighbours, blamed as a source of weeds like ragwort. For more than a decade, no other large farmer in England followed Knepp’s pioneering style.
“All of a sudden we see people wanting to be a part of it,” Trey said. “I don’t think that would have happened even 10 years ago. We have policymakers changing agricultural subsidies and farmers are under pressure from the younger generation.
“Unusual things are happening in Knepp with the return of nightingales, turtle doves, and purple emperor butterflies. But we are well aware that on our own we are just a bubble. Not many species can travel across the land as easily as birds and butterflies.
“We’re not talking about rebuilding everywhere, but it’s very important that we have biodiversity hotspots dotted the landscape and that the rest of the landscape is permeable to allow these residents to meet each other again.”
Tony Whitbread president Of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, he said: “There’s no group of eccentric conservationists like me trying to convince people anymore – landowners and farmers lead and we follow.”
The project began when Baird secretly visited Knepp during the pandemic to inspect her reconstructed pastures grazing freely roaming cattle before offering to collaborate with the estate. “He wanted to make sure our cattle were in good shape like I said in my book,” Trey said. “Thank God our cattle passed through the crowd.”
Bird first decided to change his intensive plantation—moving to a regeneration system—when he witnessed the forest destruction of palm oil plantations in Borneo. Then he read a book wilding. “To me it was a wake-up call that our food production systems here have a lot to answer. Who are we to tell Indonesians and Malaysians to manage their habitats when our habitat is in such a degraded state?”
The ultimate sign that the balance between food production and nature has “completely collapsed” is how we have used farmland to grow seeds to feed wild birds because we have, Baird said. Many can no longer prosper in cultivated rural areas.
But he said the argument that green farming or rebuilding is an indulgence during the cost-of-living crisis was wrong, and he cited the latter. National Food Strategywhich showed that the world produces 1.7 times more food per person than it did in 1960.
“We have enough space inside this insulator to revive nature on marginal land,” he said. “There is a lot of food in the world, and it happens to be in the wrong place or tossed in the trash or lost in the fields. It is a misnomer that we cannot return some land to nature because people will starve elsewhere in the world.”
He added, “It’s an exciting moment. The era in which nature has been ignored and degraded is coming to an end, and we are about to see the sea change in the way the countryside is financed. Cultivators who do not wish to change will find it very difficult to continue as they were.”
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