Feature: Transformative Land Use

CLA members explored a unique land management project in Norfolk
Wendling Beck image - do not use elsewhere on website

CLA members recently toured the Wendling Beck Project in Norfolk to explore a 2,000-acre habitat creation and nature restoration project, which seeks to reconnect wildlife on a national scale. Lee Murphy finds out more.

Developed in collaboration with farmers, local authorities, Natural England, environmental nongovernmental organisations and the private sector, the Wendling Beck Project near Dereham is transforming land use for environmental gain while building long-term business resilience and providing community benefit.

The project is multi-layered, and phase one of the landscape transition has begun. This involves 250 acres of degraded arable land becoming a patchwork of heath, meadows, scrub and woodland creation. The project uses historic maps to help re-imagine the current land use, which will deliver the restoration of heathland, parkland, species-rich lowland meadow, lowland fen, wet woodland and rare chalk streams.

Livestock have been introduced to help keep the habitats in optimum condition. Glenn Anderson is the project lead at Wendling Beck and says the idea came about as a way to build financial and environmental resilience into the rural business over the long term.

“The project has been running for four years,” he says. “When we started, we had the uncertainty of Brexit, and we had come out of Europe. We knew that the Basic Payment Scheme was going to go, which was a risk for our business, and there was a growing expectation that farming would need to become net zero. We were experiencing extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, and we were concerned about biodiversity loss and the degradation of nature across the landscape.”

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Glenn Anderson shows CLA members around the project

The Covid lockdown gave Glenn the time to analyse his business: “It allowed us to sit back and reflect on our business and re-write a strategy as to how we might change [our land management] in the future. We had time to speak to our neighbours and discovered many were like-minded and were looking at the world through the same lens.” Glenn realised he needed to collaborate to deliver something bigger and better than he could do on his own.

Along with the landowners involved, partners in the project now include Norfolk Rivers Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Anglian Water, the Nature Conservancy, local authorities, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and Natural England. This collaboration is key to the size and scale of the project and is carefully managed.

“We have a two-tier structure where we have a collaboration agreement between all the partners involved in the project, which forms a steering group for strategic direction,” says Glenn. “We have then formed a single operating company: a limited liability partnership, and that is the vehicle that will trade natural capital and manage the project over the long term.”

Funding avenues

Often, landowners may choose one or two funding avenues for nature recovery. The Wendling Beck Project has several different schemes, including Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), nutrient mitigation, natural flood management and regenerative farming. “We’ve realised that one size does not fit all,” Glenn explains. “The projects are all unique and have different underlying natural capital in terms of how you monetise a transition in land use. A large proportion of the world’s economies are highly dependent on nature in some form, and therefore nature has a financial value and is the central part of our finance model.”

Wendling Beck was chosen as one of Natural England’s Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) pilots ahead of mandatory BNG. For local developers and planning authorities, it is an opportunity to meet BNG requirements through the purchase of biodiversity units. The BNG baseline surveys and habitat delivery have been scrutinised by Natural England to give investors confidence that units are fully compliant with this emerging policy.

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CLA members gather for the Norfolk AGM at Wendling Beck

Dillington Carr Site of Special Scientific Interest

One highlight of the project’s wildlife story is the Dillington Carr Site of Special Scientific Interest - a man-made wetland landscape rich in biodiversity. These interconnected wetland landscapes play host to myriad birds in the summer and hundreds of wildfowl species in winter.

Woodland creation across the project aims to connect fragmented ancient and semi-ancient woodland. It will be one of England’s largest lowland meadow restoration projects and will see a huge area transition from intensive arable land (grade three and four) to species-rich pasture.

Food production and nature restoration

Food production remains important to the landowners involved. Through the introduction of livestock and a regenerative farming system, the project area will continue to deliver sustainable produce through local food markets.

Glenn believes that food production and nature restoration are deeply linked. “There needs to be more balance in the system – climate change is a massive risk to food security. Th e status quo is anything but secure. Intensifying food production is not a smart way of addressing food security, but getting more balance in the system is. “If you look at our existing production system, we’re heavily dependent on imported inputs, which is not secure. A transition to a more regenerative system where you are less dependent on those inputs is more secure if you can get to a place where there isn’t a huge drop-off in yields. That will come over time.”

Goals and objectives The Wendling Beck project has several goals:

  • Allow nature to thrive: Create the right conditions and reintroduce species that have declined and disappeared through time, then trust nature to do the rest.
  • Bring back wildlife: Create and restore habitats to support native and historical species.
  • Ensure wellbeing: Reconnect nature back to society and allow people to experience a wilder landscape and become closer to nature.
  • Build resilience for the future: Support nature-driven processes at scale. Allow nature to heal biodiversity, water and soil, and help reverse biodiversity loss and limit climate change.
  • Continue the story of food production: Maintain food production through regenerative practices and grass-fed cattle and sheep, which will also be used to manage high distinctiveness habitat.
  • Create an exemplar: Create a model that is financially and environmentally resilient and encourages others to follow a similar journey.