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How to Buy Your Own Nature Reserve

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How to Buy Your Own Nature Reserve

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“But how could you actually own a nature reserve?”

Someone asked me that question today. Well, you can and I do. It’s also much simpler than I imagined when I first set out to do it.

What does it cost to buy a nature reserve?

I have 3.5 acres of land that I own outright…

  • The field cost £35,000 (I remortgaged my flat to release a cash lump sum). In conventional terms this is ‘not a wise financial decision’, but I prefer investing in my family’s happiness than bricks and mortar.
  • I spent £2000 of my own money on 600 trees and tree tubes – grants are available, but all have strict terms.
  • I got 100% grant funding for 7 huge ponds.
  • I also had to spend several £1000 on solicitors and fencing (part of the land contract required installing boundaries).
  • I didn’t pay agency fees as I found the land privately.
 

Why would you want to own a nature reserve?

We’re all fans of nature here, right? Can you imagine watching a family of birds hopping about, knowing that, without your land, they wouldn’t exist? It’s magical to see degraded farmland with little ecological value slowly being reclaimed by native species. I love discovering animals like Badger, Hare and Fox as they pop up on the trailcam or spotting Cuckooflower and Grass Snake emerging in the Spring.

It’s great exercise – I would much rather coppice a tree or dig a ditch than lift weights in a soulless gym. You could also just kick back and enjoy a book, immersed in birdsong, sat on a picnic rug in the shelter of a hedge, soaking up the sun.

It’s your own little kingdom – you can do what you like here, and yet, by helping nature along rather than spraying it with herbicide, you’re really benefiting biodiversity. It’s not just your special place to escape to – your refuge – it’s also your legacy.

Rewilding Project after 2 years
Two years in, the nature reserve is beginning to look more biodiverse.

How do you make a nature reserve?

Just follow a few simple rules and you’ll help nature along. Make sure you keep the 3 D’s in mind whenever you are planning things out or doing land management…

Diversity: Sow native wildflower mixes or plant a good mix of native trees – this will attract diverse insect populations. Increase the structural diversity of flat areas by digging ponds, creating mounds of earth and blocking up drainage where possible.

Dispersal: Avoid fences where possible as they reduce animal movement. Consider the wider landscape and replicate neighbouring habitats to allow species to move through your patch, connecting it to a wider network.

Disturbance: It’s not a garden, so don’t tidy it up – leave branches where they fall and dead trees standing. Natural spaces have large herbivores, which create mess and eat vegetation, so mimic their activity by coppicing trees and cutting grass occasionally.

How do I decide what habitat to create?

There are two schools of thought here, and since it’s your land, I’m not going to tell you which to choose…

Let nature decide: Leave the land to recover naturally (passive rewilding) – trees will grow from the seed bank in the soil provided there aren’t too many deer. Just make sure you keep disturbing the habitat occasionally to avoid it succeeding to monotonous high canopy woodland.

You decide: Take a look at neighbouring ecosystems and plant species found in them so you can design a ‘stepping stone’ habitat or ‘wildlife corridor’. Plant these species in your patch – this is ‘active rewilding’. Visit nature reserves similar to yours – you can sustainably gather plant seed legally in the UK, as long as you don’t sell it.

Do I need planning permission for a nature reserve?

Please note, I am not a lawyer, and the below is not legal advice – proceed at your own risk… 

If you plan to plant or regenerate less than 0.5 hectares of woodland, and it’s not in a protected area (e.g. SSSI, AONB etc), you don’t need planning permission according to Gov.uk. That’s provided your patch isn’t within 500m of an existing project.

If you create ponds with the FWAG Great Crested Newt Scheme (i.e. free grant money), they manage the planning application for you. The pond digging process is messy (see below) and it will take a while for the land to recover, but water is an essential part of most ecosystems.

Rewilding project with ponds

What might I have forgotten?

There are a few things that I’ve discovered in the process of buying and creating a nature reserve that are worth knowing…

  • Access is important: Make sure you have access rights written into the land contract – buying isolated plots disconnected from a road will be a nightmare when it comes to maintenance.
  • You need a solicitor: Unfortunately you won’t be able to do your own legal stuff, even if you want to. Most land exchanges will require you to appoint your own solicitor.
  • Check the local town plans: Available online, this will show you where development is permitted in the future. Is your nature reserve going to end up on the edge of town?
  • Horse owners can be… difficult: You may want to avoid planting things which are toxic to horses (Sycamore, Laurel, Box, Privet, Oak) and/or to manage expectations with neighbouring horse owners. In my experience, they may be horrified at the idea of tree planting – ‘trees… in the countryside?!’
  • People will want to see: The moment people find out about your project, many of them will be very keen to visit. This goes for both your friends and random members of the public.
  • Public rights of way: I personally love the idea of Right to Roam and have tried to expand access beyond the footpath into my nature reserve. But it brings liabilities – potential insurance claims, noise, thievery, vandalism and littering. If you don’t welcome the idea of the public visiting your land, you might need to find a very isolated plot.
  • Signs: If you have public access across your nature reserve, it gives you an opportunity to create signs. Invest in a laminator. Think about positive messaging strategies rather than telling people what not to do, to avoid signs getting damaged.

Are you Ready?

If you’re convinced and want more advice, get in touch via the contact page. It’s an adventure you’ll never regret!

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