Over the course of the past century the UK has seen a major decline in wild landscapes, natural ecosystems, and green spaces. With that decline we’ve lost a vital carbon sink that pulls carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in nature. At the heart of this is the question of how land is managed, controlled and owned.
Making more space for nature can help tackle climate change. Large-scale rewilding efforts can restore ecosystems and connect animal populations; while giving us all more access to the natural world.
The most effective way to realise those climate, biodiversity, and social benefits is by linking natural habitats across the UK through an intentional, well-planned project to rethink land management. This large-scale project would rewild and restore 25% of the UK.
A full overview of the plan is available to read as part of Common Wealth’s Green New Deal series. This interactive project gives an in-depth look into some of the methods that could be used to begin rewilding. →
This is the UK’s current land-use distribution:
- 45% grazing land
- 18% cropland cover
- 12% peatland, freshwater & coastal habitats
- 12% woodland
- 6% suburban
- 5% urban
- 2% other 1 Simon Lewis, “A Green New Deal for Nature” Common Wealth. September 2019.
Let’s break those figures down.
Underutilised Grazing Land
45% of the UK is land for animal grazing, split between grass-dominated land and heathland.
A significant portion of this is is made up of low-value “grade 4” agricultural land, usually reserved for rough grazing.2 Friends of the Earth UK (2019). “Finding the land to double tree cover” report. By restoring some of that underutilised grazing land back to broadleaf woodland there would be massive benefits, both socially and environmentally. It would allow woodland to be be significantly increased across the country and existing green areas to be linked together.
Grazing on agriculturally poor land largely exists because the public pays farmers subsidies to do so. Redirecting these payments to reward sequestering carbon through rewilding and restoration would mean farmers would continue to use their land, but for a new purpose, resulting in a more intentional use of public money in the face of climate change.
The UK has 120,000 hectares of hedgerows,3 Committee on Climate Change, “Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change”, November 2018. separating and enclosing rural land. Dramatically widening these hedgerows can turn them into linear habitats, linking woodlands and larger green areas, including our national parks. But this process won’t happen on its own. Effective restoration and community-driven rewilding needs to take place.
How could this happen? More transparent land ownership details would mean communities could have more say over their local landscapes. Currently, 50% of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. 4 Shrubsole, G. (2019). “Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land, and How to Take it Back.” Harper collins. How we use land is intimately tied up in patterns of ownership. Confronting climate crisis will require new models of land stewardship, organised to meet the needs of people and planet.
Natural Flood Defenses
12% of the UK is covered by land strongly influenced by water, the peatland, freshwater and coastal habitat group.
Peatlands are organic-matter rich soils maintained by being waterlogged for part of the year; freshwater habitats are composed of lakes, rivers, and streams; and coastal margin habitats refer to areas near the coast. Half of all this land could be easily restored. This would involve restoring peatlands to become natural flood defenses, letting vegetation thrive and helping animals repopulate the reclaimed land.
On peatlands across the UK grouse moors, hunting estates represent a massive portion of land owned and used by a very small portion of the population. Often on peatlands, restoring and rewilding these areas can turn a major source of carbon to the atmosphere into a long-term carbon sink. Peatland is an excellent repository for carbon, and making sure that we make the most of that carbon sink requires rethinking the ownership and management of peatland.
On the coast, rewetting salt marshes could also help prepare communities against the adverse effects of climate change, like sea level rise and storm surges. As storms get more severe, restoration and rewilding would help the coastal towns and villages adapt to climate change, improving the local environment and strengthening local-economies in the face of climate disaster.
UK-wide restoration can help to connect lower-lying areas with higher ground, building new natural corridors linking regions throughout the country.
Large-scale rewilding can help connect populations of plants and animals – like butterflies – providing them a greater chance of reproducing. This would let them move and adapt to our rapidly changing climate, rather than becoming locally extinct.
Bridging green areas across the UK will allow plants and animals to track the changing climate. While climate change threatens many species already on the brink of extinction, having more space for nature and connections would have exponential benefits to at-risk species. Just as restoration and rewilding can help towns and villages adapt to climate change, these measures will help species adapt too.
And, crucially, restoration and rewilding is a highly cost-effective means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere compared to more complex technological solutions.
Green Urban Space
What would these restoration and rewilding efforts like in urban areas? Of the 11% of total UK land mass occupied by human habitation, 5% is more densely populated areas, and 6% sparsely populated. Some of this area can be restored by bringing nature into our cities. Rewilding in urban areas can connect people with rich wildlife habitat, bridging the gap between urban and rural.
As industrial land is decommissioned, land restoration and maintenance can provide a way of creating jobs. Additionally, by planting trees in low-income areas, often the areas with the least amount of green space, rewilding efforts can move into densely populated urban areas.
As climate change intensifies, well-planned rewilding can address inequalities. This can give those who are most at risk from climate change the opportunity to exercise democratic control.
A rewilding of the low-grade agricultural land closest to cities would benefit the most number of people with the smallest possible impact on food production. This would give new access to nature for the UK’s urban dwellers.
Keeping the land occupied by crops and all densely urbanised land off-limits, the UK could be managed more effectively, increasing carbon stocks and supporting wildlife. This kind of large-scale rewilding can work to both fight climate change, and help communities to adapt.
An effective, safe programme to rewild 25% of the UK will result in a reduction of UK emissions by roughly 14% a year, making the UK greener and more vibrant. Rewilding can provide a major boost on the road to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Land and Ownership
Headline figures about agricultural land use — and the way we think about public and private land more generally — hide the massive potential for ecosystem restoration and rewilding.
Land can produce many benefits if managed for the many. There are a range of policies and incentives that can help push forward effective habitat restoration and rewilding. New opportunities, including forms of collective ownership and payments for carbon sequestration, can provide the building blocks. What’s needed is a plan. What awaits is green and vibrant land, life-filled and accessible to all.
This interactive project is based on “A Green New Deal for Nature”, a report authored by Simon Lewis as part of Common Wealth’s Green New Deal series. You can read it in full here.
Exec - Mathew Lawrence
Concept - Josh Gabert-Doyon
Design - Julian Siravo
Web Dev - Nikolaos Pappas