‘Trailblazing’: Essex farm to become training facility for rewilding

A farm in Essex is set to become a “trailblazing” example of rewilding best practice and provide training for landowners and managers.

Landscape company Ground Control bought the 120-hectare Grays Farm, near Braintree, Essex, for £2m in April.

The Wildfell Centre for Environmental Recovery will be dedicated “to helping landowners unlock the potential of their underutilised land”, according to the major landscape and maintenance contractor, which currently oversees 55,000 commercial properties across the UK.

The company says it intends to turn the degraded Essex farmland into a research and training facility, which will provide guidance and learning opportunities in woodland creation, meadow and hedgerow restoration, and biodiverse habitat restoration.

In 2019 Ground Control was involved in a pilot project on a site in nearby Billericay. There the “green gains” included nine hectares of new native broadleaf woodland, meadow restoration, orchard planting, the introduction of bees, and the generation of 11kW of wind, 50Kw of solar power, and 80kWh of battery storage.

The Wildfell Centre for Environmental Recovery is set to be 10 times the size of this first project, according to the firm.

Ground Control has started work on creating a single, independently verifiable biodiversity metric and certification program for land under its management. This will be separate to the biodiversity metric 3.0 recently published by Natural England, though Ground Control told ENDS that it intends that it will be “complimentary” to it.

Speaking at the centre’s launch last week, Ground Control director Kim Morrish said she was “keen to inspire property-owners across the UK to dedicate underutilised land to reverse the decline in the UK’s natural environment”.

She continued: “Showcasing the best practices for habitat creation, biodiversity net gain and carbon sequestration will allow public and private landowners to re-imagine their landbanks and explore what they can do to maximise green gains and create a sustainable legacy for the next generation.”

Land evaluation, project design and stakeholder engagement have already begun at the Wildfell site, with initial woodland, habitat creation and restoration projects set to start in 2022. 

The launch of the news centre comes as DEFRA has begun its appeal to England’s landowners for applications to join its Landscape Recovery scheme, the third and final of the government’s three new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS), along with the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Local Nature Recovery initiative. Environment secretary George Eustice has said that “we need almost universal uptake” of ELMS if targets on water quality and biodiversity in the Environment Bill are to be met.

Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, also spoke at the launch for the Wildfell centre where he welcomed the project.

“Environmental ambition must today go beyond protecting what’s left of our natural world to embrace plans for its recovery,” he said.

“One vital aspect of what is needed are compelling examples of success to inspire more investment and action, including trailblazing initiatives from businesses like Ground Control’s Wildfell Project.”