Dr Neil Hudson is MP or Penrith and The Border, a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, and a veterinary surgeon.
To succeed, the Government’s much-anticipated levelling-up strategy must recognise the geographical and ecological diversity of our great nation, and enable different areas of the country to thrive by doing what they do best.
We hear much about the potential for clean energy and manufacturing to bring jobs to our industrial heartlands, but less about the significant economic opportunity in restoring nature to our treasured national rural landscapes. To truly level up, we must restore both our natural and industrial heritage.
This week, along with fellow MPs from the North West, I am leading a delegation to visit RSPB Geltsdale Nature Reserve, a local “rewilding” site in my Cumbrian constituency, to see levelling up through nature in action.
There are huge misconceptions surrounding rewilding. Also known as wilder farming, rewilding is an approach to conservation which restores ecosystems by reinstating natural processes: putting nature back in the driving seat. In one way, it’s actually a very conservative idea – letting nature take responsibility for itself rather than intensively managing and controlling.
Through changes in land management such as blocking drains, phasing out heather burning, and replacing sheep with low-density, extensively-grazed cattle, the two hill farms at Geltsdale have restored large swathes of degraded peatland and ushered in the return of wildlife which thrive on healthy upland peat habitat, like the endangered curlew and lapwing birds.
But these measures need to be done on a case-by-case basis with local consent and consultation; it needs a sort of ‘horses for courses’ approach – the balance and type of livestock on any project need to be considered and selected sensibly and pragmatically.
While we know rewilding delivers good outcomes for wildlife and biodiversity, what has been less well-documented are the benefits for farmers, communities and the local economy. Nature underpins our economic prosperity and resilience, as outlined by the recent Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity which was commissioned by Treasury ministers.
For example, healthy peat bogs act like sponges, reducing runoff into rivers and streams during periods of rainfall. This helps to reduce flooding – essential for protecting Cumbrian residents and businesses from the increasingly frequent and severe episodes of heavy rainfall and storms. It also improves water quality, so reducing treatment costs which contribute to household bills.
In this year of COP26 we have a real opportunity to lead the way in innovative environmental management as we look to protect our precious environment and combat the crisis that is climate change.
Managing land in this way is also a stimulus for jobs, with new employment opportunities in conservation and tourism alongside continued vital income from food production and livestock, like the cattle at Geltsdale which are so essential to the local ecology.
One recent study found that rewilding just five per cent of marginal land in England could create nearly 20,000 jobs in rural communities and deliver a nine-fold increase in volunteering opportunities, all while food production continues on this land. Looking after and protecting the environment while producing good quality sustainable food using high animal welfare standards very much go hand in hand.
And there are opportunities for farmers beyond core rewilding sites. The recently-published independent review of England’s food strategy, led by the entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, envisages three broad categories of change to land management to improve food security, halt the decline of nature and tackle climate change.
In short, some farmland will sustainably intensify using technology and science to improve soil and animal health; some businesses will adopt more nature-friendly farming to combine food production with the provision of environmental goods and services; and others will undergo landscape changes such as peatland and woodland restoration. All will reward existing farmers and landowners.
The Government’s new Environmental Land Management schemes, which are replacing the EU Common Agricultural Policy, will pay farmers for the public benefits that these improvements deliver, including high animal welfare, flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and public enjoyment of nature to cleaner air and water.
The government’s £640 Nature for Climate Fund is supporting efforts in Cumbria and beyond to treble tree planting and restore 35,000 hectares of degraded peat by the end of this Parliament.
And recognising our duty to pass on the natural environment in a better state than we found it, our world-leading Environment Bill will mandate county councils to establish Local Nature Recovery Strategies, as piloted in Cumbria, and the government will set a legally-binding target to halt the decline of nature by 2030.
And the Government is determined to facilitate the return of some of the iconic British species which are integral to our natural inheritance. Last week, the government published a strategy for reintroducing wild beavers after a successful trial reintroduction on the River Otter in Devon found that the dams constructed by these natural engineers protected communities downstream from flooding and provided vibrant wetland habitats for other wildlife. In Cumbria, the return of the white-tailed eagle could help to reverse the historic decline of wildlife while also further boosting our eco-tourism sector.
The 25 Year Environment Plan recognises the significant potential of the uplands to deliver environmental improvements, creating the prospect for increased investment in nature recovery efforts in Cumbria. Already some farmers in my area are ‘re-wiggling’ rivers, re-wetting floodplains and moving to a more mixed, rotational farming system.
Many many people in Cumbria work in farming and tourism. With the right investment, Cumbria is well positioned to take advantage of this new land economy. That’s why the restoration of our natural heritage should be at the forefront of the rural levelling-up agenda.