When farmer James Baird read of Isabella Tree’s vision for rewilded land stretching from her Sussex estate all the way to the sea at Shoreham, he phoned up Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, and told them: “You’re going to the wrong bit of coast – I’ve got the last bit.”
Now Baird, a self-described “hard-nosed arable farmer” who owns virtually the last slice of undeveloped West Sussex coast at Climping Gap, the other side of Worthing to Shoreham, is the driving force behind the creation of a wildlife-rich green corridor linking the rewilded Knepp estate to the sea.
The Weald to Waves project aims to create at least 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of nature-friendly land in corridors running from the rolling hills of the Weald down the valleys of the Rivers Arun and Adur to boost biodiversity on land and in the sea.
The ambitious nature restoration plan will receive a big boost this summer with the government’s announcement of a multimillion-pound “landscape recovery” pilot, one of the new environmental land management schemes (Elms).
“Nature recovery is not a fashion, it’s essential,” said Baird, who grows peas for Birds Eye and wheat for Hovis on 530 hectares. “If we don’t make space for nature, who is going to pollinate the crops in the future? We can’t sustain our soils unless we rewild them.”
Baird is among eight major landowners who have signed a memorandum of understanding to create a wildlife-rich corridor from Knepp to the sea. Almost 50 other farmers have joined them in bids for “landscape recovery” funding in the Arun and Adur valleys. If one or both of these bids is successful, it will turbo-charge the Weald to Waves project.
Baird said more and more farmers were signing up, often for pragmatic reasons as they seek more sustainable ways of producing food and sources of funding amid spiralling fertiliser prices. Parish councils are also joining the project alongside charities including Sussex Wildlife Trust and the conservators of Ashdown Forest.
Farming the river valleys in more nature-friendly ways will reduce sediment washing into the sea and boost the health of the Sussex kelp beds, which are being restored after a fisher-led trawling ban last year protected 117 square miles of coastal waters.
The Weald to Waves project marks an extraordinary transformation in landowner and farmer attitudes towards the rewilding at Knepp in the 22 years since it began. In the early years, the 1,400-hectare former dairy farm was a pariah among its neighbours, blamed as a source of supposedly noxious “weeds” such as ragwort. For more than a decade, no other large farms in England followed Knepp’s pioneering wilding.
Tree said: “Suddenly we are seeing people wanting to be part of it. I don’t think that could have happened even 10 years ago. We’ve got policymakers shaking up farm subsidies and farmers getting pressure from the younger generation.
“Extraordinary things are happening at Knepp with the return of nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies. But we’re very aware that on our own we are just a bubble. Lots of species can’t travel as easily across the land as birds and butterflies.
“We’re not talking about rewilding everywhere but it’s very important that we have biodiversity hotspots overspilling into the landscape and that the rest of the landscape is permeable to allow these populations to meet each other again.”
Tony Whitbread, the president of Sussex Wildlife Trust, said: “It’s not a bunch of weirdo conservationists like me trying to persuade people any more – the landowners and farmers are leading and we are following.”
The project began when Baird secretly visited Knepp during the pandemic to inspect its rewilded pastures grazed by free-roaming livestock before offering to team up with the estate. “He wanted to make sure that our cattle were in as good a condition as I said they were in my book,” said Tree. “Thankfully our cattle passed muster.”
Baird first decided to change his intensive farm – moving to a regenerative system – when he witnessed the destruction of forests for palm oil plantations in Borneo. Then he read Tree’s book Wilding. “For me it was an awakening that our own food production systems here have got a lot to answer for. Who are we to tell the Indonesians and Malaysians to manage their habitats when ours are in such a degraded state?”
Baird said the ultimate sign that the balance between food production and nature was “completely broken” was how we used farmland to grow seed to feed wild birds because so many can no longer thrive in the farmed countryside.
But he said the argument that nature-friendly farming or rewilding is an indulgence during a cost of living crisis was wrong, and cited the recent National Food Strategy, which showed that the world produces 1.7 times more food a person than it did in 1960.
“We’ve got sufficient space within that buffer to revive nature on marginal land,” he said. “There’s plenty of food in the world, it just happens to be in the wrong place or it gets dropped in the bin or it gets wasted in the fields. It’s a misnomer that we can’t revert some land to nature because people will starve elsewhere in the world.”
He added: “It’s an exciting time. The era when nature has been disregarded and degraded is coming to an end and we are about to see a sea change in the way that the countryside is financed. Farmers who are unwilling to change are going to find it very difficult to continue as they were.”