Around a year ago, a small group of visionary Sussex landowners signed up to a new nature recovery project spanning the entire county, each committing their land, or part of it, to the initiative.
The Weald to Waves project was first conceived after James Baird, an arable farmer, read Isabella Tree’s book Wilding. The book chronicles how she and her husband, Sir Charles Burrell, rewilded their own failing farm at Knepp Estate, to create one of the most important biodiversity sites in the country.
Baird had already become aware from travelling in Borneo of the impacts wreaked by habitat loss and agricultural industrialisation, and he recognised similar patterns in his own local landscape. He felt a growing responsibility to give nature greater priority on his land, which happens to be situated, west of Littlehampton, in one of the last undeveloped stretches of Sussex coastline at Climping Gap.
An ambitious vision
Baird was drawn to a part of Tree’s book where she laid out a vision for a continuous wildlife corridor stretching from Knepp, near Dial Post, down to the coast. He contacted the Burrells and offered his land as the end point in this corridor.
By 2022, Weald to Waves was up and running, and its initial seven pledged landowners now stand at around 50. Partners include Sussex Wildlife Trust, and public bodies including the South Downs National Park, Horsham District Council and Adur & Worthing Councils.
The envisioned corridor runs for over 100 miles and encapsulates over 20,000 hectares of land, from Climping Gap to Knepp, eastwards to Ashdown Forest, and with forks following the course of the Adur and Ouse Rivers to Shoreham and Newhaven, respectively.
As well as the broad ambitions for habitat corridors and biodiversity recovery, the project places a focus on 15 target species, chosen either for their threatened conservation status or as indicators of ecosystem health, to act as barometers for success.
Government lip service to the environment
Initiatives like this are long overdue. In 2010, Professor Sir John Lawton chaired a report for Defra on Making Space for Nature, summarised by the mantra for ‘bigger, better and more joined up’ wildlife habitat. Since then, much lip service has been paid to the environment by the British government, and additional relevant reports published.
However, action on landscape scale ecological recovery has been sluggish at best, with even the limited progress (the Northern Forest and Cairngorms Connect being good examples) consistently undermined by ongoing environmental devastation. If Weald to Waves lives up to its potential, it could make Sussex a hub for ecological restoration in Britain, at least south of the Scottish border.
Knepp, which is at the helm of Weald to Waves, continues to develop from strength to strength, with 19 active white stork nests this spring and the tantalising possibility (not yet confirmed) of their beaver pair breeding for the first time. On its relatively small 3,500 acres, it has thoroughly put to shame the incrementalism and spinelessness of statutory agencies and national conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Meanwhile, the Sussex Kelp Recovery Project is ramping up the recovery of coastal kelp forest, with encouraging results after just two years of protection from inshore trawling.
The challenge over the next years will be bringing the corridor to link them together into fruition. That will largely depend on how the overarching ambition is interpreted in practice by different landowners.
I have previously discussed how, despite the success of Knepp, relying on a few enlightened individual landowners for the rewilding of the British landscape is a risky strategy. And with no concrete, measurable targets or action plan as yet for precisely how Weald to Waves hopes to restore biodiversity or to what extent, I see plenty of scope for greenwashing by farmers. Time will tell.
What the project does represent though is a change in attitudes. When Knepp first began its rewilding journey, according to Tree, it proved virtually impossible to convince neighbours to join the project, which was greeted with overt hostility. Now, there’s a countywide network of landowners who, at least in theory, are signed up to promote nature recovery.
Not all will embrace the rewilding model of Knepp, but if some do, Weald to Waves will achieve extraordinary success. If, on the other hand, the corridor merely becomes about farms sowing more wildflower borders or reducing their pesticide use, that’s all very well, but would hardly be anything to write home about.
Bringing the landscape back to life
I look forward to seeing large free-roaming herbivores – such as the cattle and ponies introduced at Knepp, as well as bison, deer and wild boar – migrating across Sussex between different reserves and rewilded ecosystems, through a matrix of nature-friendly farming, from Ashdown Forest to the coast.
They would be aided by wildlife overpasses across major roads, reducing habitat fragmentation and the risk of collisions with vehicles. Likewise, beavers should be allowed to roam wild along the length of Sussex’s river network, improving water quality and mitigating flood and drought. These ‘keystone’ herbivores would themselves engineer these nature corridors to enable other wildlife to flourish.
And perhaps one day, when Weald to Waves has seen its network of nature restoration well underway, it could provide core habitat for the reintroduction of wildcats, lynx or wolves.
Some may look at the current patchwork quilt of tidy agricultural fields that make up much of Sussex and think this sounds rather a fanciful pipedream. But unless we take rapid action to restore biodiversity on this scale, we’re on course for a nightmare. In the years to come, Weald to Waves must be bold and strive to meet its great potential, that this green artery may bring the Sussex landscape back to life.
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