Britain’s ancient woodlands and wetlands are to be revived under a national rewilding scheme with farmers paid for environmental restoration in a major overhaul of the industry.
In the biggest agricultural reforms in 50 years, landowners and farmers will be given state financing to plant trees and restore natural habitats under the new Local Nature Recovery project devised after the break from the European Union.
A major argument made for Brexit was criticism of the EU’s heavy subsidies of farming under the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) and its onerous regulations.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, now hopes that the new policies introduced will give farmers the long-awaited Brexit dividend as well as benefiting the environment.
At the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday he detailed the reforms to halt the decline in British natural species by 2030 and restore biodiversity. “We must use our freedom from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy to establish a new system of rewards and incentives in agriculture,” he said.
Under the scheme farmers will bid for rewilding finance in 15 pilot projects during the first wave of the “landscape recovery scheme”, which will eventually be worth £800 million ($1.082 billion) a year, replacing the EU Cap.
The money will fund large-scale, long-term projects from establishing woodlands to restoring peatlands, wetlands and creating new nature reserves.
The initial projects will focus on restoring England’s rivers and streams and help threatened native species to recover with 300,000 hectares of habitat restored by 2042.
Successful bids, which will cover landscapes of between 500 and 5,000 hectares, will be chosen by a team of experts over the summer.
The government said the schemes would help to halt the decline in species and generate carbon savings of six million tonnes a year They will also improve the status of about half of the most threatened species in England, including the curlew, sand lizard and water vole.
“Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature,” Mr Eustice said.
Another scheme, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, will support environmentally friendly farm practices such as looking after the soil by growing cover crops in the winter, was also recently announced.
But there are some concerns that changes are too focused on rewilding the environment over the basic need for domestic food production and security.
However, the Cap reforms are seen as a significant benefit of leaving the EU by farmers and environmentalists, who regarded the subsidies as favouring major landowners. They also saw Cap harming the environment with many hedgerows and woodland areas cleared to create more hectares to be subsidised.
“Rewilding marginal and unproductive farmland is a major opportunity to tackle the nature and climate emergencies,” said Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain. “This offers opportunities for farmers and rural communities while ensuring no loss of productive land for growing food.”
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said the real test would be to get 30 per cent of land managed for nature and halt the loss of wild species by 2030.
“It’s also to make sure farmers are supported so that they help solve rather than worsen the nature and climate crises,” he said. “Anything less than that means that this historic opportunity will have been wasted.”