How to Rewild a Farm
A clear and helpful introduction to rewilding for farmers and estate owners.
Many farmers are turning to rewilding, regenerative agriculture and nature-friendly farming to create alternative sources of income. Farming in tandem with nature can still be productive, especially in organic systems, and the diversification can help to reduce financial shocks.
How do I Rewild a Farm?
You might think that rewilding a farm means stepping back and letting nature take over.
That’s not really in keeping with modern rewilding science – the land will likely be of little benefit for either nature or people for many years. Nowadays, we tend to take a more active approach to tackling our biodiversity crisis, while creating jobs and new sources of income.
Should I Rewild Arable?
At How to Rewild, we strongly advise against rewilding high fertility arable land. This practice simply shifts the farmland footprint to other locations, where it may cause the destruction of valuable habitats.
Such actions are also likely to create issues with the public perception of rewilding. Fields with an Agricultural Land Classification of 1 or 2 should ideally be used for farming, not rewilding.
Option 1: Low Productivity
Temporarily remove livestock from the land and cease low-yield arable production altogether (switch to organic and no-till elsewhere). Stop all use of pesticides and fertilisers (only use dewormers while animals are housed off site). Allow natural regeneration of trees and scrub, and carry out supplementary planting of missing species, including wildflowers. Introduce pigs at very low density to turn over the soil and convert pasture into wildflower meadow.
Allow scrubs and trees to get established for 5-10 years before bringing back in a guild of herbivores. Hardy, native breeds of cattle, horses, deer and pigs that will maintain the land in a ‘conservation grazing’ approach at a stocking level of 0.5 – 1.0 animals/ha, prioritising the development of natural ecosystems.
Remove land drains, dig ponds and scrapes, and restore the natural hydrology of your land, encouraging the development of soggy patches which have low agricultural productivity but high value for carbon and biodiversity.
This strategy will result in a burst of agricultural ‘weeds’ and create a ‘scruffy’ appearance over the first decade, which will transition into a wilder landscape over time. The project will benefit from ecotourism potential, with high biodiversity value.
Grazing livestock can create a biodiverse grassland ecosystem if present at low densities.
Option 2: Medium Productivity
Convert low-yield arable fields to pasture and seed them with a herbal ley mix to improve the nutritional value and drought resistance of your land. Divide your land into smaller parcels which will be grazed on a rotational basis, using a mob grazing system. This may be done virtually using the NoFence app system (costly at scale).
Graze each parcel of land intensively at a very high stocking density, for 1-3 days, before resting it for 2-3 months. This will improve the nutritional quality and carbon sequestration of your grassland system and break the life cycle of parasitic species. Avoid dewormers if possible, or worm livestock while housed offsite.
Plant new tree strips along the boundaries of your parcels – a mix of species, some of which may be used for livestock fodder. These will also provide valuable shade in summer months. Dig ponds where possible to supplement drinking troughs. Plant new orchards and stack productivity by grazing these with your livestock.
Take some marginal land with low yield out of production, especially field margins, and plant these areas with native trees and/or locally-sourced wildflower seeds. Switch to hardier breeds of livestock that graze happily on pasture, rather than feeding indoors.
Stacking livestock and trees – ‘silviculture’ can increase productivity in organic systems, while also enhancing biodiversity.
Option 3: High Productivity
Widen the margins of arable fields, and seed wildflowers in the new margins, reducing runoff into neighbouring watercourses. Avoid using herbicides, and, where possible, artificial fertilisers (grow leguminous cover crops to supplement soil nitrogen over winter).
Allow hedges to grow wider, break up woodland edges and dense forest canopies to create opportunities for biodiversity. Create wildlife ponds and partner with neighbours to collaborate across a wider area, linking up wildlife corridors across the landscape.
Yellow rattle – this native plant reduces the vigour of grasses, allowing wildflowers around it to thrive. Can be mown off if it gets out of control.
What Funding is Available?
There are many different way to finance rewilding on the farm, from simply converting to organic farming under Countryside Stewardship to more complex natural finance initiatives.
Entrade offers farmers the ability to cash in on their proximity to certain river catchments by reducing agricultural runoff. This organisation will pay you to create wider field margins adjacent to a watercourse – find out more on the Entrade website.
If you’re planting trees on your land, you can take advantage of schemes like the government’s own Woodland Carbon Guarantee to monetise the carbon they offset. This scheme takes applications every year from the UK Government website. Just be sure to plant a good mix of native, locally-suitable species to maximise the woodland’s potential for diversified income. A useful list of other relevant woodland creation grants is available on the Wessex Woodland Management website.
Biodiversity Net Gain
In England, farmers will soon be able to take advantage of biodiversity net gain legislation, which mandates that new developments actively contribute to an area’s biodiversity. This means housebuilders (and others) will be looking for land that they can pay to restore, or, alternatively, for BNG credits. These credits are created when land is restored in a systematic way, with a baseline assessment, then restored and monitored. You can find out more about BNG, and how it will apply to farmers on the Farmer Clusters website.
The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group – FWAG – offers free pond creation to farmers in certain areas of the country. They will project manage this excavation and apply for any planning permission required. Just search for ‘Great Crested Newt Ponds FWAG’ to see if the service is available in your area.
The Sustainable Farming incentive is just one part of the new three-tiered Environmental Land Management scheme system, which is gradually rolling out across England. This system incentivises regenerative agriculture and pays for rewilding interventions at several different scales. You can find out more about the scheme in our article.
Other Government Assistance
The government has laid out in detail many of the grants and assistance programmes available to help farmers with land management costs on this page.
Is Rewilding 'Just for Toffs'?
You don’t have to be rich to rewild. You might have heard about billionaires investing in rewilding, but they’re not alone – there are plenty of everyday people who are just as enthusiastic. You don’t need to own an entire landscape to do rewilding (but it helps). Collaborating with neighbours or following simple principles that are shared with others can have the same effect.
Knepp is a great case study, but it has a reputation for being quite posh. If you want a more down-to-earth look at how farmers can approach rewilding, take a look at English Pastoral by James Rebanks (a born and bred farmer) or Land Healer by Jake Fiennes (‘don’t call me the Gordon Ramsay of rewilding’). Or read this story in The Guardian about three Devon neighbours (admittedly, two of them weren’t farmers) who came together in a rewilding collective.
A Shepherd’s hut at Knepp – income from ecotourism.
How Do I Diversify my Farm?
There are plenty of ways to earn money from a rewilded farm, although they depend on how far you’ve gone with your rewilding. For example, camping would be more appropriate for Option 2 (Mob Grazing) farmers than for those on Option 1 (which will take years to look wild) or Option 3 (which will still look like a farm).
The UK tourist industry boomed during COVID and plenty of people have stuck around. We’ve noticed an increase in the demand for rewilding-themed holidays recently, which has led to accommodation at sites like Knepp being sold out a long time in advance. Wild camping is an easy way to go, but it’s also worth considering things like shepherds’ huts, yurts, treetop lodges or listing farm buildings on Airbnb.
Wild Meat/Pasture-Fed Meat
One benefit of switching to extensive grazing is the ability to sell ‘rewilded meat’ products, which can be sold at a premium. This pasture-fed meat is delicious and highly sought-after, as it has strong eco-credentials. Knepp has done well with its own wild meat products and the organisation Pasture for Life can help you get started.
Nature tours are a lower revenue operation than hospitality, but they’re also lower impact and lower effort. These are more effective if you have an impactful, reintroduced species, like a Beaver or White Stork, for the crowds to see.
Businesses touting their green credentials like to use eco-friendly sites for conferences and gatherings. You may be able to hire out barns, fields or buildings for this type of use if the surroundings are pleasant and look suitably ‘wild’.
Natural capital credits
Biodiversity itself is starting to be worth money in certain markets – see the Grants section above, which describes how developers are beginning to buy biodiversity ‘credits’ to offset building projects in England. This industry is still in its infancy, but in a few years, it looks likely that there will be privately-financed schemes for farmers wishing to profit from investing in nature.
As described in the Grants section, you can profit from the carbon storage potential of your land. Bear in mind, however, that woodland is a low carbon habitat compared to other ecosystems like bogs and certain types of grassland. Avoid planting trees unless you’re sure that it will have a net positive impact on carbon – it may be worth speaking to an expert to get advice on this.
What are the Benefits of Rewilding for Farmers?
Rewilding isn’t just a potential source of revenue to farmers – there are other benefits, too. Remember that rewilded land can cycle back into production again, so let’s briefly explore why you might want to rewild your land, regardless of the economic impact.
Reverses Soil Compaction
Compacted soils can reduce yield by causing flooding and making it harder for seeds to germinate. Plants growing in compacted soils will suffer more in extreme dry or wet conditions. Rewilding your land helps to restore soil structure – pigs are a great way to reduce soil compaction, but you need to leave the soils to recover, too. A lack of soil organic carbon can cause poor structure, but this will be restored over time as land is rewilded.
Stops Soil Erosion
Large fields with few hedges tend to suffer from problems with erosion and runoff, particularly on sloping land. Rewilding restores vegetation, which traps that runoff before it reaches watercourses, and, over longer timeframes, the rotting plants gradually improve the soil again.
Improves Water Quality
Buffer strips along the edges of watercourses, riparian (river edge) vegetation and Beaver dams all reduce runoff. This improves water quality by trapping nutrients from fertilisers and eroded soil within vegetation, where it can be used for plant growth. You can minimise your farm’s polluting impact on rivers and ponds by selectively rewilding buffer strips around watercourses.
Adds Ecosystem Services
This is a bit of a generic one which tends to get paraded about by conservationists, but there’s truth to it. A boost in biodiversity will also mean you’ll benefit from an increase in pollinators and insectivores which could improve yields. Better soil health, associated with a healthy mycorrhizal network, can reduce the cost of fertilisers or help you to convert to organic production.
Uses Marginal Land
Many farms have patches of land that are just not economically viable to farm. By turning these over to rewilding, you could benefit from the diversified income streams and grants listed above, while also helping soil health and water quality to recover.
Rewilding the margins of watercourses can be incentivised by paid schemes and reduces your impact on local rivers.
5 Steps to Rewilding a Farm
0: Get a Baseline Survey
Before you do any work, if you’re hoping to profit from Biodiversity Net Gain, carbon credits or similar systems, you’ll need to get an ecological baseline survey. That will later allow you to prove how much your farm has improved in biodiversity, carbon capture etc over time. It’s hard to overstate how important this baseline survey is – find a reputable ecological consultancy and ask them to explain it in more detail.
1: Introduce Pigs
The best way to start pretty much any farm rewilding project is with pigs. We’ve already mentioned how they disturb the ground, allowing wildflower seeds to germinate. Well they also change the structure of the landscape in other ways, creating a varied habitat with a messy structure to the ground layer, reducing compaction. This creates niches that allow many types of nature to flourish – just try to keep stocking levels below 0.4 pigs per hectare.
2: Connect Wild Patches
Have a look at your land from a satellite view and try to picture how nature travels through it. Identify the wild patches – hedges, woods, ponds and thickets – and figure out how you can join up these patches (through supplementary planting) to create a green web across the land. Avoid creating isolated patches of habitat – even large ‘islands’ will have much less value to wildlife than much smaller patches which are well-connected to the wider landscape.
3: Collaborate with Neighbours
Speak to neighbouring landowners about what they’re doing for wildlife, and collaborate on the work. Join up wildlife corridors across your boundaries and use similar management techniques in adjacent plots to maximise the biodiversity. Let them know what important species are around and what they might do to help you protect them.
4: Reintroduce Species
Rewilding is all about improving the diversity of species in an area, but you can give nature a helping hand by partnering with an official reintroduction programme. Water voles are an easy mammal to introduce, as they’ll really improve any stream and riverbank habitats, but at the other end of the scale, Beavers will have a massive impact on your land. They’ll reduce downstream flooding, improve water quality, create a reliable livestock water supply during droughts and their ponds are a haven for all kinds of wildlife.
5: Get Expert Help
Your farm is different from every other farm. You know that as much as anyone – rewilding advice that applies to one farm won’t apply to every farm. You know your land better than anyone, so you’re in a good position to guide an expert towards the best possible plan of action. Speak to an organisation that can offer tailored advice, appropriate to your farm – whether that’s a charity like Rewilding Britain, or a rewilding consultancy like Ecosulis (our sister company).
Coppiced Hazel woodland creates high biodiversity, and the resulting rods can be used in fencing (Sweet Chestnut is also suitable, though of less value to wildlife).
How Do I Manage a Rewilded Farm?
Each habitat will need its own specific management, but there are three core ideas you can apply across every patch of rewilded land that will help it to thrive. Bearing these in mind will keep you aligned with the science of rewilding across your site.
These are the 3 D’s of rewilding a farm…
- The more species (higher diversity) in a food web, the more stable it is, as losing one species has less impact.
- Diversity can be improved with reintroductions, especially species which went locally extinct – this also includes seeding wildflowers and planting native trees and shrubs.
- Landscape structure should also be diverse, with a rich ‘mosaic’ of habitats providing space for many species.
- Big and small changes (disturbances) happen constantly in the wild, creating new habitats and opportunities – pigs are naturally great at disturbing the ground.
- When wild animals and trees die and are left in place, they support new life and return nutrients to the ground.
- When landscapes are allowed to change over time, such as rivers changing course or ponds silting up, new habitats are constantly created – likewise, disturbing these processes occasionally by e.g. digging out an old pond can create a new habitat.
- Animals and plants must move (disperse) over time to avoid inbreeding and local extinctions e.g. during floods.
- Fences, roads, fields and monoculture forestry plantations are all a barrier to movement for many species.
- ‘Wildlife corridors’ of wild habitat (hedgerows, ponds, woodland, meadow etc) connect larger natural areas and help them support bigger populations of animals.
Read more about rewilding...