Rewilding Herts: Where the wild things are (or could be...)

Barn Owl hunting over a wildflower meadow

Restoring wildflower meadows creates habitat for a wide range of species and supports apex predators like the barn owl - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Rewilding. It's a buzzword right now but what exactly does it mean and what are the arguments? Sebastian Oake looks at an ambitious Herts project and the wider debate. 

On a 1,000-acre farm, roughly at the centre of the triangle formed by Letchworth, Royston and Buntingford, big things are happening. Brother and sister Mark Faure Walker and Kate Redfern are developing a luxury retreat and wedding venue at their family's beautiful Queen Anne manor house and its outbuildings, including a medieval barn and dove cote. 

But here at Sandon Manor the focus of change is also very much on the fields beyond, where a different marriage is taking place - one of farming with wildlife. The arable land here was farmed by Mark and Kate’s father and before that, their grandfather. Wheat cultivation will continue but now there is an additional priority - nature.  

Mark Faure Walker and Kate Redfern at Sandon Manor - the family estate they are transforming 

Mark Faure Walker and Kate Redfern at Sandon Manor - the family estate they are transforming - Credit: Sandon Manor Estate


'I have always been conscious of the constant, almost imperceptible, changes taking place in the countryside that nevertheless add up over generations,' Mark reveals. 'Nature’s baseline has steadily declined. Many things that were taken for granted in the past are simply not here anymore. In my own lifetime, species such as harvest mouse, cuckoo and hedgehog have disappeared from the estate or become far less common.'

Ten years ago the family started to do something about it, and a five-acre wildflower meadow was planted at Sandon Manor. 'That gave me a lot of pleasure,' says Mark. 'And we went on to develop a wood pasture in partnership with Natural England.' Since June last year a full nature enhancement programme has taken shape focusing on multiple avenues. 

More meadows are having their wildflower population restored through seeding from local nature reserves, while ponds and water meadows are being created, bringing in snipe and Canada geese. In areas of existing woodland, old hornbeam coppice, neglected for many years, is being thinned to allow more light to get through to veteran oaks and the woodland floor. New areas of more shrubby trees, including blackthorn, rowan, wild pear, crab apple and hawthorn are being established, while in historic parkland missing feature trees are being returned. 

A Wilson's Snipe perched on one leg.. Image shot 06/2008. Exact date unknown.

The new wetlands at Sandon have attracted snipe - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo


'Our ethos is a balance between regrowth and control,' Mark explains. Control means making sure grazing deer don’t undo all the work. There are high numbers of fallow and muntjac deer at Sandon and muntjac in particular have stripped out the understorey in woodland with a knock-on negative effect on nightingales for instance. Deer fencing has been essential to maximise both the establishment of newly planted trees and natural regeneration. 

Ambitious projects like this one at Sandon come under the broad umbrella of rewilding, although Mark admits he is unsure about the term. Rewilding is now very much a buzz word and a point of debate among land managers, farmers and environmentalists. But what does it actually mean? 

The rewilding debate 

Rewilding Britain is an organisation that wants to see major nature recovery across 30 per cent of Britain’s land and sea by 2030 with five per cent of this being rewilded areas. The organisation's spokesperson, Richard Bunting, says: 'Rewilding is large scale nature restoration, taking ecosystems to the point where nature can look after itself. Traditional nature conservation has been about protecting specific habitats or species. It has done some great work but we are now being outpaced by the biodiversity and climate crises. 

Rewilding doesn’t mean human beings taking their hands off the steering wheel suddenly. Nature is in such a bad place at the moment that that is not sensible. Nature needs help to get going in the right direction. For example, Britain is an island nation. If terrestrial species have been lost, they’re not going to get back without our help.'

There is a general assumption that returning lost species means apex predators, such as lynx, to our countryside but to people like Richard, this is something of a myth.

Red squirrel looking out over field of bluebells

Red squirrel in bluebell woodland. The species is 'nature's tree planter' but is now missing from much of the UK - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto


'It’s not automatically about big mammals. Red squirrels are nature’s tree planters but they too are now missing from most of England and Wales. Beavers are nature’s habitat engineers and could do good work in our countryside if we welcomed them back. It’s also about the small but very important species too, such as wood ants and bumblebees.'

The concept of rewilding has not attracted support from every quarter. Some farmers see it as a surrender of agriculture to nature and a reversal of what they have worked for. Others say we need our farms to produce as much as possible for food security. 

The National Farmers’ Union speaks for many in the industry when it says: 'British farming plays an integral role in shaping the cherished landscapes we see and enjoy today. Rewilding vast tracts of British farmland would mean reducing UK food production and importing the shortfall from other parts of the world, which may have been produced to lower animal welfare and environmental standards.'

The Country Land and Business Association, which gives support and advice to landowners and rural businesses is worried about our food supply but does see a place for rewilding.

'There is no doubt that we need to go further in reversing nature decline,' says a spokesperson, 'and for that reason rewilding is a legitimate part of the land use mix in this country. 

'It is, however, preferable to reserve rewilding projects for areas of poor quality agricultural land. At a time when we still import 40 per cent of our food, it is vitally important that we consider our national food security when considering environmental schemes.'

Rewilding Britain argues that rewilding can take place without affecting productive farmland. Richard Bunting says: 'Rewilding can be achieved by restoring native woodlands, moorland, peatland, rivers and marine habitats, without losing productive farmland or our farming heritage.'

Perhaps most importantly for rewilding, he argues that as part of an attempt to limit global warming and counter species decline it has ignited the public imagination. 'We’ve seen a real shift over the past decade in terms of interest in nature,' says Richard. 'Rewilding has inspired growing numbers of people to play a part. It can unfold on different levels, including local communities, and is empowering - providing a channel for people to engage and challenge the problems we face.' 

Digger creating one of the new ponds at Sandon 

Creating one of the new ponds at Sandon - Credit: Sandon Manor Estate


Back at Sandon Manor, Mark clearly has a passion for rewilding but there were other factors that made it a sensible direction to take.

'The economics of farming have become more marginal here,' he explains. 'We have grade three land [good to moderate] that’s relatively high up and made up of small fields, so, we’ve been looking to do something a bit different. When the wedding venue opens next year, we are hoping the two sides – rewilding and hospitality – will complement each other.' 

To find out more about the projects at Sandon Manor, visit sandonmanor.com
Other rewilding sites around the country can be found at rewildingbritain.org.uk