Funding land acquisition for nature & people
We have a Climate & Ecological Emergency and to tackle both we need to speed up the pace of nature restoration worldwide – including the UK.
There is huge potential for ecosystem services and conservation groups are best placed to deliver them in a credible way that is genuinely beneficial not just for carbon capture but also for tackling biodiversity loss.
We are already seeing private equity firms buying up land for not particularly nature-beneficial tree planting to profit from carbon offsetting schemes. In my view conservation groups like the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, whose very reason for being is to protect nature, are best placed to act as guardians of our land in the long term.
As well as restoring land to nature, land acquisitions by conservation groups also restore land to people – making more land available to all of us to enjoy.
Philanthropic lending as emergency action
To be in with a chance of buying suitable land for rewilding when it comes up for sale, charities need to be able to act quickly. There isn’t time for fundraising appeals and grant applications. Plus many revenue opportunities only become available once the land is acquired.
So charities need interest free or low interest loans so that they can compete for land with private/corporate buyers and buy the land first then fundraise later. This then gives them time to apply for lottery funding, grants and run traditional appeals and seek other income generating opportunities after they have made an offer for the land and started the conveyancing process.
On top of traditional fundraising, there are already a range of ways that conservation groups can earn money from land being restored to nature, and hopefully these will increase with the introduction of Environmental Land Management schemes.
Loan, fundraise, repay, repeat
I’m working with The Wildlife Trusts to develop a model and case studies to show how others can help their communities purchase land through a conservation group.
We are exploring a 2 or 3 stage process:
- Bridging loan to get the purchase going
- Green bond or crowdfunding to repay the loan and pay for site costs (optional middle stage)
- Income/fund generation opportunities which become available through ownership of the land.
I’ve developed a template Rewilding Loan Agreement for this purpose which I’m happy to share.
Philanthropic lending in practice
As at 28 March 2022 five acquisitions have been secured through the Funding nature project.
- Wild Woodbury – acquired by Dorset Wildlife Trust June 2021 – 420 acres (around 230 football pitches) View more
- Pentwyn, Mid-Wales – acquired by Radnorshire Wildlife Trust October 2021 – 164 acres View more
- East Waste Drove, Somerset – acquired by Somerset Wildlands March 2022 – 12 acres View more
- Weston Farm, Dorset – acquired by the National Trust March 2022 – 350 acres View more
- Slievenacloy, Ulster – acquired by the National Trust March 2022 – 330 acres View more
So that’s 1,276 acres acquired to restore to nature and people so far and
4 more potential acquisitions in progress.
I have already been joined by others willing to invest in their future and that of their children and grandchildren by making philanthropic loans available to the Wildlife Trusts to make nature recovery at scale across the UK possible.
Why a philanthropic loan and not a donation?
Donations to support land acquisition are wonderful and obviously the best source of funds for a conservation group. However, most people are only willing to permanently give away so much of their wealth. The philanthropic loan option gives people the opportunity to put their money to work to help nature restoration for a while, then get it back should they need or want it either for personal, family or business reasons, or to support another project. So the hope is that by developing this option we can increase the overall funds available for land acquisition by conservation groups.
As an example, I set up a family trust to provide for my children’s future. What better way to protect my children’s future than for that trust’s funds to be used for the next few years to provide patient loans to Wildlife Trusts so that they can buy land and restore nature. The most effective way that I can protect my children’s future is by supporting action to tackle the climate & ecological emergency. With this mechanism, after the funds have been used for a few years to restore nature, the funds then get returned to the Trust and are available should my children need them. And until they do, I can support another purchase or another project and so on.
Philanthropic loans aren’t just for individual philanthropists. They provide a low-risk, low-return, high impact investment opportunity for charitable trusts, providing the opportunity to achieve impact with endowment funds and other funds which the trust isn’t ready to donate out.
You may be considering buying land yourself to rewild and that’s great. However, here’s some advantages that I see of instead helping a conservation group to buy land:
- 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.
If you own land yourself, you are responsible for managing that land and dealing with any issues that arise. There have been many occasions when I’ve been extremely relieved that it is Dorset Wildlife Trust that owns and manages Wild Woodbury, and not me, including when the Dorset Wildlife Trust team have had to deal with felling trees due to ash die-back, clearing rat-infested buildings and disposing of a pig carcass fly-tipped in one of their ditches!
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, the RSPB and Somerset Wildlands.
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.
Of course, if those groups are not able to help acquire the land you have in your sights then absolutely see if you can get a community acquisition going. Please remember that charities have to weigh up the best/greatest overall benefit that can be achieved with their funds. So whilst a small local site may be incredibly important to those living near it – acquiring it may not be the best use of funds for a charity trying to achieve maximum national/area-wide impact.
You can commemorate a loved one or your personal involvement in a project to acquire land by a range of means which have a personal resonance for you. Examples include wooden carvings, tree planting, benches and plaques on site.
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.