Welcome to the RSK Wilding news summary for Autumn Winter 2022. It’s been a pretty busy and exciting three months: you could even say wild!

We’ve recently wrapped up a large biodiversity net gain (BNG) report for Lancaster City Council, assessing the opportunities for habitat restoration to the south of the city. In agreement with our clients, we see BNG as an opportunity more than a burden: our chance to ‘do our bit’ for reversing biodiversity loss together. We have also tendered for a number of very exciting landscape-scale projects and a couple of high-level BNG advisory roles for major infrastructure organisations. Given that our tagline is ‘bigger, better, wilder’, we are always keen to get involved in habitat restoration at scale, but we also want to work with clients at scale, advising on strategic approaches to biodiversity offsetting for organisations with considerable landholdings and influence.

One of our key concerns at Wilding is the often quite polarised debate around farming and wildlife, and towards the end of September, our Director, Jon Davies, was interviewed on this subject for the ENDS Report. The article was prompted by Natural England boss Tony Juniper’s comment that he prefers the term ‘habitat restoration’ and no longer uses ‘rewilding’, largely because of the negative way it is interpreted by some in the farming community and the media. However, like George Monbiot, we at Wilding are content with rewilding as a term, not least because it has captured people’s imaginations and is understood by most to mean bringing back nature, in whatever form and at whatever scale. While the technical definition might refer to the low-intervention restoration of natural ecosystem processes at scale, we believe that it can and should mean all things to all people, especially if it encourages us all to do our bit for reversing biodiversity loss.

For us rewilding is a bottom-up approach and starts with creating diverse habitats for plants and invertebrates; this is why we chose a beetle for our logo! Our experience with farmers has made it clear that wildlife and farming can very much coexist. Jon and our Senior Habitats Advisor, Bel Whitwam, visited a group of farmers in Wiltshire to discuss the opportunities around BNG and other potential revenue streams based around habitat restoration, and it is clear there is an appetite out there. Our view is that transitioning to regenerative agriculture practices (or ‘RegenAg’) on more productive land, and using the more marginal land for habitat restoration and enhancement, achieves the best of both worlds. Not only is food production not compromised (indeed, yields are much the same or better, and nutrient density is higher), but also the soil is restored and fertiliser and pesticide inputs are reduced, thus increasing carbon sequestration, reducing run-off, improving biodiversity and soil quality and ultimately, increasing revenues. Jon’s thought leadership piece explores the poignant issue further.

At the end of September, Jon gave a talk to Scotland’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Conference in Edinburgh. He talked about the role of the EIA process in delivering biodiversity enhancement – in accordance with the requirements of the current iteration of the National Planning Framework in Scotland (NPF4) and pointed out that the wording in the draft NPF4 was perhaps too vague to bring about real change. In England, the combination of a universally accepted means of measuring biodiversity (the Defra Biodiversity Metric), alongside a legally mandated target (10% BNG for all development), makes it much more likely that the scale of habitat restoration required to reverse biodiversity loss will be achieved. Suggesting to the Scots that how we do it in England is better may be a diplomatic minefield but given that Policy 3 of the NPF4 pulls no punches on the issue (it is, after all, entitled ‘Nature Crisis’), perhaps we shouldn’t worry about such things and should just make sure we do the very best we can to restore our wildlife.

We have continued to provide ‘Lunch and Learn’-style talks about BNG for our developer clients across the Autumn period, as it’s clear that there is a real appetite across the industry to understand what this mysterious new abbreviation is all about. Of course, the implications can be considerable, because failing to avoid the more ecologically valuable habitats can lead to a very significant, and often very costly, biodiversity offsetting burden. Indeed, this was one of the main aims of the Defra Biodiversity Metric, to discourage prospective developers from purchasing and/or building upon our most distinctive and rare habitats.

The potential to use the land between and around solar arrays to create and enhance biodiversity is also something we are particularly interested in, and at the beginning of October RSK Wilding Associate Director, Mark Lang, presented a talk entitled Solar farms: An opportunity for biodiversity? for the RSK Biocensus First Thursday Club.

We are also establishing a research hub to gather evidence on those techniques and measures that work best within the solar industry, and are teaming up with Exeter University, amongst others, to gather empirical data to inform the future design and management of solar farms in the UK.

Another key focus for Wilding this quarter has been the water industry, and we are working closely with a number of water companies on a variety of projects. Our main focus is on using a combination of RegenAg, Nature-based Solutions and BNG to deliver improved water quality whilst also providing a wide range of additional environmental benefits (including biodiversity enhancement, carbon sequestration, flood risk mitigation and even improved public access to nature). There is clearly a sea-change in attitudes across the water companies, with a much greater emphasis on natural solutions to water quality issues, both at source (i.e. by reducing chemical inputs through more sustainable farming methods) and at the treatment stage (by deploying nature-based solutions, such as reedbeds and ponds, rather than using hard infrastructure and chemical treatment phases). At a more local scale, in September we visited one of our landowner clients to investigate the potential for wetland creation with a view to enhancing biodiversity while also improving water quality in the local river. The potential even exists for using beavers to do the work for us, which would be very exciting!

In October we welcomed two new people into the RSK Wilding team. Dr Tim Graham came to us from the Office of Environmental Protection, before which he was CEO of the Manx and Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trusts. Tim brings a wealth of experience in habitat restoration, ecosystem approaches, strategic innovation and landscape-scale nature recovery, and joins us as Associate Director. We also welcome Liam Thomas who, having graduated from Cardiff University in 2016, has already had posts with Bristol University, University College London and even Memorial University in Newfoundland. Liam’s skills in GIS and data handling will be key in managing our every increasing portfolio of sites and clients.

Finally, our Director, recently paid a visit to the archetypal European rewilding project in the Carpathian mountains in Romania, aiming to be the ‘Yellowstone of Europe’. Whilst Jon didn’t get to see any of the wolves, bears, lynx and bison for which the Carpathia project is famous, staying in an observation hut high up in the mountains was a real treat. Could this be an inspiration for us here in the UK? Whilst reintroducing wolves might be a hard sell, creating truly large-scale habitat restoration projects should certainly be an aspiration, especially given that October saw the birth of the first baby bison in the UK in hundreds of years.

Wilding wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.