The non-profit rewilding group Heal, which launched at the start of the pandemic, has just acquired its first landholding of 460 acres near Bruton in Somerset, England.
It will restore the land and biodiversity to create a new nature reserve, the first in a series it plans to establish in every English county.
The £5.25 million ($6.46 million USD) site, to be called Heal Somerset, aims to tackle the nature and climate crises while creating new jobs and work for local tradespeople and businesses, with projects to be co-designed and delivered with the local community.
The charity says the site will be a blueprint for establishing a major nature recovery site in all 48 English counties by 2050, together covering almost 25,000 acres.
Heal Somerset is pastureland, mostly on heavy clay, with three small tributaries of the River Frome crossing it, and a spring.
The site includes miles of hedgerows, with mature oaks and numerous other trees scattered across the undulating landscape.
There are a number of traditional stone farm buildings, which the charity plans to restore and renovate.
“We have worked day and night over two challenging years to secure funding and to find this beautiful place for wildlife and for all of us, to show that together we can take fast, practical action to benefit nature, climate and people,” said Jan Stannard, Heal’s co-founder and Chair of Trustees.
“Having acquired the land, the first step has been to talk through our ideas with our neighbours and the local community, listen to their views and discuss any questions they have. We have been inspired by the many positive responses and people’s enthusiasm,” she added.
A series of introductory events has already been held to discuss the project, respond to questions and outline some of the opportunities it could offer local people.
Initial project ideas are areas for food growing and nature learning for children, wildflower meadow creation, planting a community orchard, and an indoor meeting space for use by community groups.
There will be public access across much of the land so people can see rewilding in action. If the charity is granted planning permission for a modest number of annual visitors, its plans to create new local jobs and provide work for local tradespeople and businesses can unfold.
The charity will follow proven nature recovery approaches, using rare breed cattle, pigs and ponies in small numbers to help re-establish natural processes on the land. These animals will be ‘ecosystem engineers’ and not farmed produce.
Natural regeneration of trees, improved soil health and other plant growth will help fight climate change by capturing carbon. A mosaic of habitats – trees, scrub, grassland, bare earth and water – will ensure the greatest diversity of plant and animal species.
Heal expects early benefits of rewilding to include an increase in insect numbers, growth of plants including tree saplings, and a greater abundance and diversity of species.
To enable the charity to respond at speed to the biodiversity and climate emergencies, its approach is to acquire land using affordable lending, which will be paid down as rapidly as possible with mass public land sponsorship, corporate donations and natural capital investment.
For this first acquisition, Triodos Bank UK and Direct Line Group have provided commercial loan facilities for most of the financing, agreed in 2022 and 2021 respectively. Heal has also used a six-figure land fund it has built up from public and corporate donations since it launched in March 2020. Heal will soon be launching a major public fundraising appeal to repay the loans, as well as seeking the support of major donors.
“We have had support from thousands of people and more than 20 businesses, who believed in us when all we had was a vision for what could be achieved. This is the news they’ve all been waiting for and we are so grateful for their trust and backing. Now we need many more people to support us so that we can achieve our bigger goals,” continued Stannard.
“Nature will only recover if it has more space to thrive and we join a growing number of landowners across the UK who are making that happen. The potential for nature to bounce back at Heal Somerset is huge. The process of rewilding has already begun and though it will take many years for nature to recover, we expect to see positive changes immediately, first small and then more visible within a couple of years,” she explained.
Some funding for the acquisition has come from Heal’s unique ‘Heal 3×3’ land sponsorship scheme. For £20, people can sponsor a 3m by 3m patch of land at Heal Somerset and find its exact location using its what3words address online at what3words.com. Allocation of Heal 3×3 squares is expected to start in early spring and the charity hopes many more people will become Heal sponsors now that Heal Somerset has been acquired.
Bevis Watts, Chief Executive of Triodos Bank UK, said, “As a sustainable bank, we have closely supported the organic, biodynamic and permaculture movements for decades. Now to further restore biodiversity and protect nature in the UK – and to address the climate and ecological emergencies – we must find further ways of financing nature preservation and restoration.”
“This lending to Heal Rewilding is our first direct loan to a nature restoration project. We are excited to see how the project progresses and hope to be able to support similar initiatives nationwide that address climate change, adapt to its effects and promote biodiversity. This is going to be critical to meeting net zero goals and reversing nature’s decline, both of which are central to our mission to create positive impact with the money entrusted to us by Triodos customers,” he added.
David Hobbs, from the Bristol office of national law firm Bevan Brittan, provided pro bono legal advice on the transaction.
Unless otherwise credited, all photos courtesy of Heal Somerset.