A place for nature and people in Dorset
My mission is to inspire people with wealth to help secure land for nature and people in the hands of conservation groups. By providing bridging finance we can help conservation groups to proceed more quickly with a land purchase so that a deal can be secured whilst giving time to raise funds from other sources.
How it all started
In June 2021 I helped Dorset Wildlife Trust secure 420 acres of land for nature restoration (around 230 football pitches). Here’s the story of why and how.
The 2019 State of Nature Report was a wake-up call for everyone with a love of nature. I became determined to do my bit and buy some land where nature could thrive.
As well as starting my search for land I also started a reading journey (included Wilding by Isabella Tree) and discussions with local conservation groups. I soon decided that I wanted to secure land for nature beyond my lifetime and in the hands of experts in conservation, rather than an amateur enthusiast like me.
Supporting our Wildlife Trusts
Rewilding is currently a bit of a buzz word, with all manner of people and organisations talking about it. To me conservation groups like the Wildlife Trusts, whose very reason for being is to protect nature, are best placed to act as guardians of our land in the long term – not just while rewilding is a trendy hot topic.
I appreciate that some feel that in the past some of our conservation charities have taken a rather limited approach to nature restoration, as discussed in Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald. However, my experience is that their staff and volunteers on the ground are determined to update their approach and refocus on landscape scale nature restoration and allowing nature to lead the way.
By a more diverse range of people, especially more young people, getting active with their local Wildlife Trust and other conservation groups like the RSPB, we can help ensure that they continue to move with the times and recognise the latest approaches to managing land best for nature and people in the context of a climate and ecological emergency.
It’s particularly important that people from all walks of life, ages, ethnicity and from both rural and urban communities get to experience nature in order to ensure a shared passion to protect it. I hope that our Wilder Dorset will be a welcoming place for all, including those new to visiting our wild spaces.
A role for people like me
I’m in the very fortunate position to have more money than I need and I also have certain skills and some time to offer to do my bit to help tackle the climate & ecological crisis. I hope that by telling my story I might inspire a few more people to do similar and help secure more land in the care of our Wildlife Trusts for the benefit of nature and people.
Having sold a company that I helped set up, I had a pot of money that I could use to help secure action on the Climate & Ecological Emergency. It dawned on me that if I used that money to buy land to rewild myself that would be just one project and one bit of land secured. However, if I loaned money to a conservation group to act as a bridge so that they could act quickly to make an offer on land when it became available, that then gave them time to recoup those funds from other sources, many of which only become available once they own the land. Eventually once the loan was repaid to me, I could then help facilitate another land purchase for nature and people and so on.
So in the summer of 2020 I started negotiating the purchase of land south of the village of Bere Regis in Dorset and at the same time started discussing the land with local conservation groups.
After agreeing a purchase of the land I continued discussions with local conservation groups and eventually agreed to work with the Dorset Wildlife Trust to secure the land in their expert care. We Have The POWER funded a new role within the Dorset Wildlife Trust which was filled by a very experienced conservationist, Rob Farrington, whose first job was to pursue funding for the land acquisition.
By leading on the purchase I gave the Dorset Wildlife Trust time to obtain funding for the land including from our local councils. Wildlife in Dorset will now get more of the space it desperately needs to spread and regenerate and local people and visitors will get access to a wonderful new nature space.
A reading journey through nature
Here’s the core of the reading journey I took in case you’re interested:
Wilding : The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree about the Knepp Estate
You may be considering buying land yourself to rewild and that’s great. Here’s some advantages that I see of doing this through a conservation group:
- They have the expertise to help nature along and carry out research to record how nature recovers as natural processes are allowed to take the lead.
- They take responsibility for insuring the land and managing any issues.
- If I want to be involved in ongoing plans for the land, I can do so by taking part in a steering group or similar. I then have the flexibility to devote as much or little time going forward as I wish – giving me the ability to support multiple projects.
- They can access further funds to develop and manage the site plus volunteers to help with clearance of harmful non-indigenous species etc. Pulling up rhododendrons can soon become a never-ending chore!
- The land will be protected for nature and people beyond my lifetime.
Rob Stoneman from The Wildlife Trusts explains some of the issues to consider when managing land long term:
“Having worked for four Wildlife Trusts – Scottish, Sheffield, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and Yorkshire – who manage a wonderful set of nature reserves, I can appreciate some of the ups and downs of managing land for the long term. On the one hand, managing nature reserves are a complete delight – their beauty, their wonderful wildlife, the seasonality and also their deep rootedness in local communities. We mostly work with local volunteer groups that tie the reserve back to the community it serves – part of their greenspace that makes all of our lives better. On the other hand, managing land can be tricky with much to navigate. You have to be good neighbours and neighbours do not always behave reasonably, and land can be abused – littering, dog mess, fly-tipping, ‘night-time’ activities (to be polite), illegal hunts are all examples. Likewise, navigating a path through the bureaucracy of land management can be a juggle between the sometimes competing interests of internal drainage boards, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Rural Land Registry, Rural Payments Agency, Health and Safety Executive, archaeologists, footpath officers and the dreaded ‘no-fee/no-claim solicitors’ to name but a few. None of these issues outweigh the delight of nature reserves but you have to be set up well to thread your way through.
Likewise, land is ‘forever’, in perpetuity…….and that needs very stable and long-term organisations to manage them. The Wildlife Trusts for example have been around since 1912. As local organisations we remain highly rooted in our local communities but work together in a Federation to give us the scale advantages of a 3000-staff, 77,000 volunteer, £120 million organisation. We won’t let any one Wildlife Trust fail providing support when required to ensure that all Wildlife Trusts are managerially and financially sound. In short, the Wildlife Trusts are here to stay providing that ‘in perpetuity’ management of the land we care for.”
Why not set up a new organisation to buy land?
It’s my view that we don’t need more organisations to manage land for nature and people – we just need more people to help the great conservation groups that already exist acquire more land for nature and people.
I was a solicitor by profession and specialised in working with charities and so I’m very aware of the costs and red tape involved in setting up and running a charity.
I’m passionate about trying to ensure that funds raised go as much as possible to the cause (in this case land acquisition) and don’t get wasted on those set up and management costs and red tape. That’s why I’m focused on supporting existing established conservation groups like The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB.
Of course it’s great for local groups to set up their own organisations but how much money and effort is then wasted reinventing the wheel and learning lessons already learned by existing organisations?
It’s always worth exploring whether local groups would be better placed getting involved with their local Wildlife Trusts and RSPB etc and helping to add to the diversity of voices within those organisations.
Helping with this first land acquisition will always be incredibly special to me and I wanted to commemorate this on the site. 7 years ago I lost my father after a long battle with lung disease. John Davies was a much loved father to 4 daughters and adored Grancha to his grandchildren and great grandchildren. Like many men of his generation, Dad was out working all hours when his own children were young, and Dad had more time with his grandchildren than his own children.
To commemorate my Dad, and more generally the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren, I have commissioned a wooden carving of my Dad with a grandchild sat on each knee – which is how I will always remember him. Dad will sit in Grancha’s Grove and I hope that this will be a place were grandparents and grandchildren can come to share special memories.
Dad’s carving is being created by environmental artist Simon O’Rourke from Welsh oak, in recognition of our proud Welsh heritage. You can see some of Simon’s incredible work here.
Next steps in Dorset
The land acquired is close to the village of Bere Regis in Dorset and there are many other villages and towns near by. An important first step will be community engagement and ensuring that a diverse range of voices are heard.
It’s really important that, alongside nature restoration, we consider how our food needs can be met without just exporting land degradation through agriculture abroad. That’s why eating sustainably is so important. I’m particularly keen to explore increasing community food growing on the land which already contains allotments.
Dorset Wildlife Trust are now fundraising to cover survey costs. Creating a clear record of how little is currently living on the site, and of the state of the soil and groundwater and how that improves over time, is essential to demonstrate the urgent need for projects like this the length and breadth of the UK. You can add your support here.
You can follow updates on the site from the Dorset Wildlife Trust here.
Watch a video about the start of the project here.
Watch Making Wild Woodbury, a video made by volunteer Susan Western, to see nature taking back its rightful place, here.
Two years on
The uplift in biodiversity and bio-abundance at Wild Woodbury continues from year one. This year’s surveys have brought the site list to 1,600 species – an incredible increase of 300 species from the year before.
Ground nesting bird numbers have increased again in year two of the project, reptiles have moved back in and butterflies are showing around a 25% increase in abundance. Perhaps the most exciting discovery of this year’s summer surveys was the nightingale, on the Red List for birds of conservation concern. Though not confirmed to be breeding on site, its presence at Wild Woodbury as it migrates southwards is extremely encouraging. Hopefully, they will return next spring to breed!
Moth surveys at the site have now recorded over 300 species. As the vegetation continues to become more complex, many more species are expected to be recorded in the coming months and years.
The increase in biodiversity experienced on site is thanks in part due to the site-wide project to re-naturalise the headwaters of the River Sherford. The aim of this project was to allow water to flow naturally across the landscape, re-establishing historic routes through fields and creating new wetland habitats.
The effect of the restoration has been both immediate and incredible to witness, with the site now playing host to lapwing, golden plover, and common snipe, all feeding in the newly wetted areas.
As well as the work in Dorset, I am supporting innovative rewilding efforts in Somerset, through a charity called Somerset Wildlands. The Somerset Levels in the South-West of England were once a vast wild wetland. From pelicans to lynx, beavers to sturgeon, it would have teemed with wildlife. Somerset Wildlands is aimed at restoring some of that lost wildlife and wildness through a process of distributed rewilding.
Somerset Wildlands is using a process based around creating ‘wild stepping stones’. This aims to develop a network of sites throughout the Levels – some small, some large – by acquiring plots of land as they become available, both directly by the charity and by working with others purchasing lands. Each of these will be managed in as light-touch a way as is practical, with as little hard infrastructure as possible. In contrast to much conservation, which seeks areas of high value to nature and then protects them, or create set habitats, Somerset Wildlands will acquire areas of normal farmland and allow them to develop as spaces for nature. Over time this will create numerous ‘islands of wildness’ – providing refuges and diversity within the overall landscape. Crucially due to the largely passive nature of the rewilding, these will be low-cost to maintain and resilient to future shocks.
Along the way we will build a community around rewilding in the area, working with people wilding their own land, and engage people in practical rewilding and restoration.
Unlocking the land for nature’s recovery webinar
Take a look at the webinar I delivered with the CEO of The Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett and a small group of Wildlife Trust experts to explain the Funding nature concept.
Hear how I’m committing £10 million to the Funding Nature project for the next few years and I’m looking for others to join me.