The R-Word: It’s all about the money, money, money…

Generating income from ‘producing nature’ as opposed to food. By Dr Sam Rose

Peatland restoration in Scotland can lead to carbon credits Photo Dr Sam Rose

How can farmers or landowners replace income from producing food with income from ‘producing nature’ through rewilding? It’s the question I’m asked the most in my rewilding work and there is so much to unpick here that I thought I would make it the subject of this edition of the R-Word.
Firstly, many farmers would admit that their business is often very marginal, i.e., not always very—or at all—profitable. This is particularly in areas in which the land itself is very wet, steep, with heavy soils and generally not great for agriculture, such as some parts of Dorset, hill-farms and peatlands.
To make these areas produce high yield crops or support intensive dairy or meat production there is a need to chuck a lot of cash at them, in the form of fertiliser, pesticides, drainage, tractor fuel, and so on. Farmers might then get a healthy payment for their maize, wheat, lamb or milk, but at the end of the day, their margin is often tiny.
At Knepp Wildlands, before rewilding, they were growing wheat on heavy clay (very marginal land), and even throwing everything at it they were only able to do one crop a year. Because of the costs involved in wheat production, they made at best a 1% margin, and sometimes that became a loss due to global wheat prices. Yes, they produced food, but at a huge cost to the environment… just think about the chemicals, soil degradation, and tractor fuel, especially when there are areas with much better land for growing wheat. More than 20 years on from starting their rewilding journey, Knepp are making a 20% margin, and even though their income is less overall, their outgoing costs are so much less, so their margin is more.
So how do you make money from ‘producing nature’ as opposed to food? It’s important to remember rewilding is not about stopping food production; it is about making space for nature where it is difficult, costly and damaging for the environment to produce food. Rewilders—like all of us—are strong advocates for continuing food production, although ideally regeneratively (see my previous R-Word for more details about this).
There are lots of ways to replace farming income through rewilding, the most obvious ones being subsidy, tourism, and direct sales of ‘wild’ meat. Then there are the less known ones that are bundled under the banner of ‘Green Finance’, and include biodiversity net gain, carbon and biodiversity credits, nutrient neutrality and natural flood management.
Government subsidies are changing as I write: under the scheme being replaced now, farmers were/are given money—called Basic Payments—just for either “undertaking agricultural activity” or “keeping land ready for production and clear of ‘nasty’ scrub”. You already know that I like scrub, so I could rant about that for a whole article, but thankfully this scheme is now changing and in the post-Brexit programme, farmers will get “public money for public goods”, i.e., they will be able to claim subsidy only if they are undertaking practice that is good for nature such as improving biodiversity, soil and water quality, or undertaking carbon sequestration.
There are a bunch of these schemes, called Sustainable Farming Incentive, Countryside Stewardship and Landscape Recovery. There are also similar programmes for woodland creation, all of which can fit within the rewilding spectrum. I won’t go into the detail but suffice to say that undertaking rewilding type activities can lead to subsidy payments for 20+ years. Who gains from this? Well, the farmer can cease environmentally harmful farming practices, and we all gain from the improvement of nature…. a win win!! The problem will be about how much money the government has for this, and I can say here and now, it ain’t enough.
Tourism is certainly another way of making an income from rewilding. Knepp cite it as their primary income source—through eco-tours and low intensity glamping—but they have 23 years now of rewilding and lots for visitors to see. It is also quite a high-end experience so can be out of some people’s price range. They, and other places, also include education within this, there is quite a big education market and hosting visiting groups can provide income. It’s a great option, but not for everyone.
Direct sales of wild meat is another option, because even through the stocking density of rewilding areas is low, herbivores continue to breed. With no apex predators (wolves, lynx or bears) to keep the numbers steady, some cattle or pigs are slaughtered each year and sold, ideally locally, as very high quality ‘wild’ meat. It gets a premium and is delicious—if you eat meat. The income from this will depend on numbers, but as stocking densities are already low, in the smaller areas’ income is unlikely to be high… but you can see how with subsidy and a few smaller income streams, things are starting to add up into something more substantial, and as the outgoing costs are far less than with intensive agriculture, the overall numbers may be lower, but the margin may be a lot higher.
Then (drum roll) there is the smoke and mirrors world of Green Finance, which is both potentially ‘the’ way to finance ecosystems at scale, and yet at the same time mired in the murky world of Corporate ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) accounting, credit trading, offsets and the dreaded greenwashing.
Green finance basically refers to the selling of ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services’, the things that nature do that are ‘good for us’. If we start with biodiversity, at a simple level an increase in insect diversity and abundance will increase and improve crop pollination. Rewilding does this very quickly, and the resulting uptick in biodiversity can be measured. Companies like housing developers or others who damage nature can then can pay for these units or credits of biodiversity—this is called Biodiversity Net Gain or Voluntary Biodiversity Credits. I will come back to the ethics of this below.
Other means of generating green finance to help fund rewilding or similar work is to look at the rivers. Measures like wetland creation and allowing natural regeneration alongside rivers would help to reduce introduced chemical pollutants (mainly nitrates and phosphates). This will allow more fish to return and mean that cleaning it for drinking is less expensive, saving us money. You can get nutrient neutrality payments to help this happen, as can you for natural flood management techniques (another story, another day).
And then there is carbon—the doyenne of green finance, but something that has had a bit of a bad rep of late. Basically, if you sequester (suck up) or store carbon on any significant scale you can calculate how much, and then ‘sell’ that carbon either to a company who wants to offset their own carbon emissions, or an investment body who wants to hold on the credits until the price of carbon is higher, then sell them off to someone else who needs them and make a killing. Sounds dodgy on both counts and yes, well some of it is, and even some of the projects who have sold their carbon have been shown to not produce anything like the amount promised.
Like with the biodiversity credits above there are ethical questions here… it’s great to restore nature, but surely it shouldn’t be paid for just to allow companies to go on polluting. Carbon is where we have seen greenwashing at its worst, and so most organisations and people doing this now are only working with ‘high integrity carbon’—good projects with sound verification methods—and companies with high environmental ethics. Rewilding approaches, which can certainly include peatland restoration and scrub and woodland regeneration, and which all improve soils, can generate and sell carbon credits to pay for the work and maintenance long-term, but as with the biodiversity they need to be careful who’s buying!
So, there you go, lots of ways to make money from rewilding, some pretty straightforward, some a lot murkier. I have no doubt that the world of private finance will be the future of paying for biodiversity, carbon, water quality etc., and rewilding will be a part of that, but we are not quite there yet. Watch this space.