Covering the coast, Burnham Market, Wells, Holt & surrounding villages

Conservation in action

28th November 2021

Did you know there’s a movement to create Europe’s biggest nature reserve here in East Anglia? Naturally, Sarah Whittley had to find out more

Small beginnings lead to large change, this is the mantra of WildEast and if you haven’t heard of them yet, you will do very soon. The extraordinary group of passionate conservationists want to return 250,000 hectares in East Anglia back to nature over 50 years and they need you to join in. Whatever you have, from a window box to an estate, they’d like you to add to the more than 1000 pledges already made and set aside up to 20% of it to the campaign. 

Instead of tiptoeing around the black hole of global conservation issues, this is an environmental ‘power to the people’ democratising project encouraging anyone who can to dive in to help nature and biodiversity.

The organisation is called WildEast, I say organisation but after meeting one of the founders, Olly Birkbeck, it sounds more like a movement. In fact, the size of this project is so ambitious it actually makes me giddy just thinking about it. 

Like all great things, it started with a chat over a pint in the pub, when instead of bemoaning the shocking destruction of species and habitat, Hugh Somerleyton, owner of the Somerleyton Estate, approached Olly with one simple thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if landowners pledged 20% of their land to rewild.” From such humble beginnings, WildEast was born. 

While enjoying an alfresco cuppa with Olly at his home in Little Massingham, listening to a nuthatch’s excited dweep dweep calls, a green woodpecker’s yaffling laugh as it flies overhead and buzzards circling and mewing masks the unmistakable roar of the F-15 fighter jet from Lakenheath, I learn more about WildEast and Olly’s background and passionate, heartfelt feelings about nature and the environment. 

Dexters and wild ponies, Massingham Heath © Olly Birkbeck

Growing up in Norfolk I’ve met many farmers, but Olly is definitely not cast from the usual mould. After school he joined the army, then studied at the London School of Journalism but after realising this wasn’t his story, he went back to serve in Afghanistan, then Iraq. Olly admitted when Hugh and fellow founder, Argus Hardy, planned WildEast, they intended to pledge 20% of land and their time, however as with the best laid plans of mice and men, Olly is so involved, he says it’s more like 60% of his day is devoted to the project.

Many of us have heard the word rewilding, it’s been popularised in a wide cross-section of media, from George Monbiot’s Ted Talk, How Wolves Change Rivers, and Isabella Tree’s best-selling book Wilding to Radio 4’s The Archers, but what does it actually mean to you and me? 

While researching for this article I found the majority of the feedback to be positive, but sadly the negatives included, “Well, it’s great but it’s for wealthy landowners getting more subsidies”, or “It’s all about green-washing for big corporations”. But now more than ever, I strongly believe we need to put aside egos and pre-conceptions, to work together to stop the inevitable ecological disaster that is beelining our way. 

I’m aware that this busy man has a raft of meetings to get through after me, donating 60% of your day on top of your working day means early starts and late finishes, but I had so many more questions for him. 

I wanted to find out more about one of his personal projects, the restoration of 200 acres of heathland at Little Massingham. It’s a daunting fact that open heathlands are now rarer than rainforests, they’re also home to some of the UK’s rarest animals; from awesome tiger beetles to mad-eyed stone curlews, and crepuscular nightjars. 

Massingham Heath © Olly Birkbeck

Olly talks about how lucky he is to be custodian of the threatened landscape but also of the responsibility. Heathlands need a lot of management – here lies the dichotomy of rewilding vs conservation. Conservation does exactly what it says on the tin whereas “Rewilding… is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way” (says George Monbiot in his book Feral). Olly believes we need a balance between the two, as with many things, common sense and balance will win the day.

WildEast’s ambition continues to grow by the day. Olly realises that capturing the imagination of the young is the way forward, with initiatives planned with schools across the counties.

As well as schools, Olly wants to get as many organisations as possible to collaborate with WildEast; already they’re working with partners such as Natural England, and Greater Anglia who have pledged over 50 railway station gardens to nature, but with the help of the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, councils and landowners, there’s scope to convert unfertile, mono-cultured, un-biodiverse land into a haven for wildlife and the greater environment.

Olly and partners are constantly looking for new ways to turn this map green and with the help of their partners they’re always hatching plans, like extending the margins of linear features such as Peddars Way and rivers through the east – there really is a lot to look forward to. If you think you can help, WildEast would love to hear from you, let’s help make East Anglia really stick out as one of the greenest areas in the UK. 

The map of dreams

One of the most inspired and ingenious parts of WildEast is the Map of Dreams. In one simple graphic, anyone, including the likes of you and me, can participate. If you visit their website and click on the link, a lynx head overlays an interactive map of East Anglia – here you can click on the icons and see who and where land has been pledged.

WildEast aims to inspire everyone across East Anglia to make a pledge to return up to 20% of their land to nature recovery; whether it be farmyard, school yard, garden or churchyard – Reverend Alison Ball has pledged part of her churchyard and introduced hedgehog houses, log piles, bee banks and seasonal mowing.

So you don’t have to have acres of land. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden or even a window box, by simply pledging whatever you can, you too will be helping to turn the map green. So far, pledges include flower beds in back gardens, council-owned roadsides in Suffolk, large farms and railway stations; the ambition is breathtaking but the great news is – it’s working. 

Here’s an example of a pledge: acres: 0.4, postcode NR29. “My son pledges to turn our small plot into a haven for wildlife and nature. We have started on the front with bird and bat boxes, pond, rotting wood pile and overgrown grass” 

Warren School, Suffolk has pledged some of their playground by building a wildlife pond and orchard 

And here in North Norfolk, Deepdale Farm has joined the party pledging a large part of their land. Managing partner there, Jason Borthwick, is wholeheartedly behind the project: “We love the idea behind WildEast, that every landowner small or huge should set aside 20% of their land for wildlife, be that 20% of a window box or 20% of an estate. At Deepdale we have actually set aside over 60% of the farm, in a Countryside Stewardship scheme, which is already having beneficial effects on wildlife and we are only in year one of the scheme. We really do urge everyone to pledge and make this relatively easy change, so that wildlife has a place in all our gardens and farms across the region.” 

www.deepdalefarm.co.uk

Nathan Nelson, estate manager and Jason Borthwick (right), managing partner, Deepdale Farm

To find out more, visit www.wildeast.co.uk or follow @wildeastuk on Instagram