Royal estates could be rewilding’s crowning glory
As TV’s Alice Roberts calls for Balmoral to restore lost ecosystems, Prince Charles echoes her frustration at the slow pace of environmental change
LOCKDOWN brought people face to face with nature in an unprecedented way. Many of us, from city dwellers to seasoned gardeners, suddenly began to think about preserving natural habitats. Suddenly, wildflower lawns and bug hotels were everywhere.
But there is only so much individuals can do. So now conservationists have banded together to persuade the Royal Family to show the way by rewilding its vast estates. And yesterday their campaign received a major boost from Prince Charles, who called for “rapid change” to reverse environmental damage.
In a BBC Radio 4 interview about sustainable farming, he spoke of his “increasing concern” about slow progress. He said: “Year after year I had watched with increasing concern as many of this country’s precious landscapes were slowly diminished in the name of efficiency.
“Such has been the damage to the natural systems we depend upon, we must achieve profound rapid change to reverse it.We must put nature back at the heart of the equation.”
TV presenter Professor Alice Roberts is calling for the Royal Family to lead by example. “Rewilding somewhere like the Balmoral estate, which is nearly twice the size of Manchester, would bring the landscapes of the past back to life,” she explains. “With amazing species like wolves and golden eagles set amongst a lush landscape of forest and pasture, the next generation could walk through a world I can only access through archaeological excavation.
“Whilst those of us lucky enough to have gardens can do our bit, the Royal estates are big enough that whole ecosystems could be restored on a massive scale.”
And the good news, the Daily Express can exclusively reveal today, is that the Royal Family has responded positively to an open letter on this topic to the Queen, Prince Charles and PrinceWilliam.
“As with any major landowner, there will always be more we can do, and we continue to review the role our landholdings can play in addressing the challenges we face, including the creation and protection of vital habitats,” the Crown Estate said.
Alice, 48, and other leading signatories are now hoping to set up a historic meeting with the royals to discuss estate management, buoyed by a petition signed by 70,000 people who support royal rewilding.
The TV presenter regularly gets her hands dirty in her quest to appreciate our rich history and heritage while unearthing treasures from the past. As a biological anthropologist,
Alice studies how humans have survived famines, wars and pandemics while also making huge advances as a civilisation.
But many of those advances, particularly deforestation for agriculture, have come at a terrible price for the natural environment and unless there is a campaign of rewilding, the long-term future for nature in this country looks bleak too, she says. Alice added her name to the open letter from the environmental campaign group Wild Card, which urged the Royal Family to rewild huge areas of their estates. The Royal Family has 250,000 acres under its direct control, and a further 336,000 acres with the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. There are 45,000 acres at Balmoral and 20,000 acres at Sandringham. “With these historic landscapes brought back to life, ancient livelihoods could reappear too. Foraging for wild berries, mushrooms, nuts and plants could become a viable part of the rural economy,” Alice says during a break from filming the next BBC Four series of Digging For Britain. “Prince Charles has always been an environmental pioneer, introducing organic farming on Duchy estate land for example, so I really hope he might lead the way.”
In his interview Prince Charles spoke about the detrimental impact of intensive farming methods. “How we produce food has a direct impact on the earth’s capacity to sustain itself, which has a direct impact on human health and economic prosperity,” he said. “As we profit from nature, so nature must profit from us.
“But our current approach will lead to a dead end no matter how cost-effective intensive food production appears to be. I say appears to be because the way we manage our balance sheets still excludes so many hidden costs – damage to soil and major watercourses, emissions that add to global warming and the social and economic cost to local communities.” Alice says the
royals can lead the way. “I’d love to see Prince Charles, Prince William and other members of the Royal Family becoming leaders in the restoration of the natural environment. They could be at the forefront of this much-needed change.”
If they do take up the initiative, she hopes to chart progress through a television series.Alice cites the Cornwall Beaver project as a small example of what could be achieved.
“Seeing those iconic mammals back in an English landscape is so moving,” she says.
“As beavers create dams they reshape rivers, creating new wetlands perfect for a multitude of species like water voles, waterfowl, great crested newts and an array of insects and plants.”
iN HER village there is a wildlife group, which has run a successful project to rewild verges, inviting meadows back in and Alice is urging gardeners to go wild. “I have a messy approach to gardening, too,” Alice admits.
“This year I’ve left the mower in the shed and allowed the lawn to turn into a mini meadow, watching a jungle of wildflowers magically return with vetch, oxeye daisies and clover... and it’s full of bees.”
Ahead of Britain hosting world leaders for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, the Wild Card open letter points out: “The Royal Family, as figures of moral stewardship and as ambassadors for our nation, is perfectly positioned to now lead the charge in the great task of our age: planetary repair.
“We believe, therefore, that you have a unique and historic opportunity to radically address the degraded state of nature on these islands.”
As one of the earliest proponents of organic farming, Prince Charles marked 50 years of campaigning for the environment earlier this year and outlined his hopes for the climate conference.
“I published the Terra Carte, a roadmap of principles for nature, people and planet and a means of kite-marking best practice in genuine sustainability,” he said. “It makes clear that our food production must recognise that the soil and biodiversity are the planet’s most important renewable resources and I hope this will all be an important focus at COP26.
“Put simply, we all need the conference to succeed. The security of nature’s entire live support system is
banking on it. Only by benefiting nature can we benefit people. And that will ensure the future of our living planet.”
In England just 10 per cent of our forests remain, the lowest figure of any country in Europe.
“Most other European countries have about 40 per cent, so there is a huge difference,” says Alice.
“During the lockdown period it has been very clearly demonstrated that having access to wild nature brings mental health benefits. People feel better out in the countryside so, as the letter says, we need a clear vision to tackle climate change and build back the beauty we all need to help us thrive. We desperately need to reverse the decades of habitat loss, shrinking biodiversity and assaults on the natural environment. We all need nature and, in this moment, nature needs us.”
In his interview, Prince Charles spoke of his optimism. “Not a great deal has changed in the last 35 years but I’m increasingly confident we can achieve a transition, particularly when I meet the next generation,” he added. “From field to fork extraordinary work is being done to try to build a better food system for everyone. Be it Jamie Oliver promoting education and a balanced diet, Henry Dimbleby’s ambition for safe, healthy and affordable food or Marcus Rashford, whose mission off the football field is to tackle child hunger.”
Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, Kate Humble and the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are among more than 100 celebrities, scientists and public figures who have signed the letter. The signatories endorse Wild Card’s ambition of seeing 50 per cent of the UK rewilded with the biggest landowners taking the lead.
Hugh said: “A decision by the Sovereign and the rest of the Royal Family to restore ancient forests and support the return of lost wildlife to their lands could quite literally change the course of natural history in our country and play a massive part in counteracting the alarming loss of biodiversity and the worst impacts of climate change.”
●●To find out more go to wildcard.land