The UK’s recent State of Nature Report made for dismal reading. It stated that since 1970, 41 per cent of UK species have decreased in abundance; 15 per cent of the UK’s 8,431 species assessed against the IUCN Regional Red List Criteria are classified as ‘threatened with extinction from Great Britain’; butterfly numbers have dropped by 16 per cent, moths by 25 per cent, insects overall by ten per cent and mammals by 26 per cent.
The UK’s natural heritage, however, is deep seated and the number of people volunteering for conservation projects is up 46 per cent since 2000. Some 7.5 million volunteer hours go into biodiversity monitoring annually.
One such volunteer-led project is WildEast, a grassroots community initiative that encourages people from all walks of life to commit 20 per cent of any land they own to nature recovery. ‘Eco-anxiety has gripped most sections of society. People need a positive movement to engage with,’ says WildEast co-founder Hugh Somerleyton. ‘We’ve been inspired by ambitious projects such as in Yellowstone [National Park] and Douglas and Kristine Tompkins’ conservation work in Chile, but we started to dream of a way to get a whole region thinking about living in a nature reserve, rather than natural experiences being restricted to big parks.’ The founders want everyone to participate: gardeners can leave 20 per cent untidied for insects and birds; those working on allotments can pledge 20 per cent to bee-friendly plants and community planting schemes; farmers can dedicate pockets of land to eco-restorative practices. The goal is to amass pledges totalling 1,250,000 hectares across the region.
Farmland will be a key target. Coinciding with UK species decline is a continuous growth in agricultural productivity, which has increased by 150 per cent since 1973. In turn, farmland bird numbers have fallen by 54 per cent – the most severe declines in any habitat type. ‘Many farmers feel blamed for nature decline, but actually want to give back,’ says Somerleyton. He, along with the other WildEast co-founders, has experience of managing farms and is entrenched in the East Anglian farming community. ‘We canvassed about 100 farmers and found that most would like to give back. They suggested that we develop an accreditation programme for produce that comes from farmland with a WildEast pledge.’
By allowing farmers and the general public to participate in the same enterprise, WildEast hopes to link the two together with a common cause. Co-founders think this strengthened relationship will improve the premium that farmers get from practising eco-restorative farming, incentivising participation.‘We need a unified campaign. It’s all very well for the more affluent few to buy eco-restorative foods and products, but sustainable nature recovery needs widespread cultural change,’ says Somerleyton. Eventually, a real-time ‘Map of Dreams’ will pinpoint East Anglian regions where WildEast pledges have been made. Local farms, gardens, balconies, roadside borders and schools will start to appear as green dots. A verdant blanket may yet sew itself across the region.