450 Years

A CONVERSATION WITH: HUGH SOMERLEYTON

The landowner and conservationist on WildEast, an ambitious initiative to transform East Anglia into one of the biggest restored nature reserves in the world

06 April, 2021

How did the idea for WildEast come about?

Myself, Oliver Birkbeck and Argus Hardy are all farmers from the East Anglia region. We’re old friends and we’re all small scale conservationists, with an interest in how we can improve the land we own to make it more sustainable. But we wanted to find out how we could make a greater impact that went beyond our own individual farms.

To inspire ourselves we went on what I’ll call an awakening trip together. We visited some of the great rewilding nature reserve projects including Knepp in Sussex, Alladale in Scotland and Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. The key thing we realised was that we could sit at home, living out our lives, doing our little bit towards nature conservation, and that would be great, but actually, people have been doing that for 50 years – whether that’s individual people, farms, gardens or wildlife trusts – and we have failed to arrest the decline in nature. Unfortunately, these small-scale initiatives are too fragmented, too small, too little, too late. If we want to make a difference, we need a really dynamic step change.

Conservation has been, on the whole, about preserving very small segments of important land or species, or both. And it has achieved hugely important things – literally, stopping things from going extinct – but the big learning, which has come out of places such as Oostvaardersplassen and Yellowstone in America, in particular, is about rewilding and restoring natural processes. We’ve learned that nature can’t thrive on tiny little plots or islands, however well managed they are. It needs space, and space is the one thing it doesn’t really have. So, in its simplest form, the WildEast nature recovery initiative is about joining up all those spaces across the East Anglia region.


What are your objectives and ambitions for the foundation?

Everyone we’ve spoken to, and particularly the people at those big projects we went to visit, told us that scale is everything. It’s not only everything to nature, it’s also everything to the human ambition. This understanding led to us setting ourselves the audacious goal of transforming 250,000 hectares of East Anglia into what will become known as the WildEast nature reserve.

To realise this hugely ambitious goal we want, and need, to inspire the residents, farmers and businesses in the region to also see and think on that really big scale. To visualise what we could achieve if we all joined forces, and to get enthused and excited about the idea of helping to create one of the world’s great nature recovery areas. We don’t want to visit a nature reserve, we want to live in one. That’s our dream.

We looked at old maps of our region from 50-100 years ago, to see how much space existed as natural environments then, before the great decline started in around 1970. We looked at key areas such as Broadland, the Breaks and Sandlings – the medieval grazing heaths that were very predominant on the west of Norfolk, and also coming up into Suffolk and along the coast. We tried to deduce what percentage of the land would need to be returned to nature, that would be significant enough to make a difference, and we kept coming up with 20 per cent, which equates to 250,000 hectares. And then we got a call from a scientist in Cambridge who’s part of a global panel that is pouring tens of millions of pounds into exactly that question, and he said: ‘We’ve spent all this money and all this national effort, and we’ve also come up with 20 per cent.’

So 20 per cent is what we’re asking the people of the WildEast to pledge to return to nature, and that’s the same proportion whether we’re talking to the council about grass verges, playing fields and public spaces or an individual with a small garden, a churchyard, right up to farms and larger spaces. That way everyone has the same unifying stake in the initiative. And we want to achieve this in the next 50 years, by 2070, a period of time we are calling The Great Nature Recovery.

WildEast co-founders Argus Hardy, Oliver Birkbeck and Hugh Somerleyton
L-R: WildEast co-founders Argus Hardy, Oliver Birkbeck and Hugh Somerleyton


What is your long-term vision for East Anglia?

We want WildEast to become as awe-inspiring, and attractive, as initiatives such as the Carpathian project in Romania, the Tompkins Conservation in Chile, and Yellowstone National Park in America. But one of the problems we faced is that we don’t have the romance of snow-capped mountains and bears and wolves. We just have a flat, watery, heavily agricultural rump of England.

But the more experts we talked to, and the more we learned about the potential of East Anglia, the more inspired we became. Because it turns out that, pound for pound, East Anglia is actually more diverse in species and land types than any of those other places, which are all fairly homogenous. WildEast has the potential for extraordinary diversity that would allow all metrics of wildlife to recover to abundance, but it needs to be healed. So that’s our core aim.

To achieve this, we need to reset the mindset and habits of ourselves – the humans living and working in the region. And by this, I mean our regional identity. When my kids are my age, or hopefully even before that, I want people to talk about how they live in the WildEast, because they feel proud of what we’ve achieved. I think that’s what success would look like to me.


Tell me about the recently launched Map of Dreams

The Map of Dreams is an interactive map that allows people to see the growing number of pledges being made across the region, and to find out about what is being done on each plot of land. It’s a way for everyone to visualise the progress of the initiative as it grows and show what a big collective act it is.

WildEast is trying to be more than the sum of its parts. If 10,000 people pledge and 500 farmers, the 500 farmers might have a lot more acres, but 10,000 people is a far stronger movement. They’re both really important to the success of our mission, so we wanted to create a universal tool that connects the WildEast community and allows everyone to see how their contribution fits into the bigger picture. The Map of Dreams is there to inspire people and help them to join the dots more easily.

Last week we got our local railway network, Greater Anglia, to pledge 56 station gardens to become wild, so that’s exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to get. And suddenly all the councils are beginning to talk to us, and hopefully more farmers and people will gradually get involved as well.

If someone is looking at their neighbourhood on the Map of Dreams, and sees that someone five doors down has made a pledge, that might start a wave that gets the whole street involved. It also provides an opportunity for farmers to connect with other farmers who are supporting the initiative, and to build a network where they can seek support and advice, and share learnings.

It’s also a fantastic way for visitors to the region to learn about the movement, and maybe even choose sites they’d like to go and take a look at, and learn more about, when they are in East Anglia.

Fritton Lake in Norfolk
Fritton Lake in Norfolk


What are people required to do with the 20 per cent (or more) of land they pledge?

Rewilding in its purest form means abandonment, and that is absolutely one perfectly good way of doing it. But in our view, returning 20 per cent to nature is simply a commitment to let nature in. We are not being prescriptive about the change of use of that land, it just shouldn’t be farmed or gardened in a traditional sense.

So it’s either allowing an area to be self-willed, or it could be something like planting an orchard. It can literally be as simple as pulling up a few flagstones and letting nature back into your garden, and enjoying seeing how nature might take that space over. You might be a wildflower enthusiast or you might have a real thing for trees and decide to plant a wood.


What is the concept and philosophy behind Fritton Lake, and what kind of experience can people have there?

Fritton Lake is a part of the Somerleyton Hall Estate that is situated in the heart of our thousand-acre rewilding project. It’s a holiday resort where people can come to enjoy reconnecting with nature, whether that’s through relaxing or having adventures. We have a wonderful two-mile long lake where people can go rowing, canoeing, sailing, paddle boarding and wild swimming, and we also have a swimming pool, tennis courts, yoga classes, cycling and trail running.

Accommodation options range from rooms and suites in our clubhouse to self-catering cabins and woodland retreats and some new tented accommodation that we’ve introduced this year. It’s also possible to own a retreat at Fritton Lake, meaning you never have to worry about us being fully booked when you want to visit, and you can really become a part of the local community and see the developments taking place here year after year.

For guests who are interested in learning more about the eco-restoration initiatives we are investing in, we offer safari and foraging experiences, as well as more hands-on activities such as fencing or helping to remove the persistent rhododendrons, for anyone who’s really keen to roll their sleeves up and get their hands a bit dirty!

But there’s no pressure for anyone to do that. We just want people to come and enjoy the environment, along with some good, locally-sourced food, in the knowledge that their holiday is supporting a good cause.

Wild park cattle at the Fritton Lake rewilding project in Norfolk
Wild park cattle at the Fritton Lake rewilding project in Norfolk


What kind of developments can visitors to Fritton Lake expect to see, both now and in the future?

Within the one-thousand acre rewilding project that encompasses Fritton Lake, we’ve got acid grassland and heathland, wet woodland and marsh, some fragments of ancient woodland, a big chunk of water and some arable fields. With such a biodiverse area, our rewilding project at Fritton Lake is a microcosm of what we want the WildEast initiative to achieve across the whole East Anglia region.

We finally finished our fencing a few weeks ago, which means we’ve now got animals – including our magnificent water buffalos, and hopefully beavers later this year – beginning their role as eco engineers and helping to rewild the site. We’re also working in collaboration with two local zoos to introduce European bison, and Dalmatian pelicans, which haven’t been seen in the region for over 5,000 years.

Having these animals just do what they do will create a panoply of new life. Seeing that come to life over the next few years is going to be extraordinary. I’ve been waiting for 10 years to get there, and to be able to share that with other people will be wonderful. Nature is messy and chaotic, but in being allowed to be, it is more dynamic and a more robust ecosystem than what we could create ourselves.

It’s wonderful that we’re now off the mark and we can start to fly the flag for the WildEast, by letting the locals and tourists that come to Fritton Lake experience a small taste of how our whole region could be transformed. My hope is that visitors to Fritton Lake will be able to paint a picture of what a much wider area could look like if we all take a leap of imagination and a leap of faith to pursue the WildEast mission. And paddle boarding alongside water buffalos is something you can’t do anywhere else, I don’t think!

Hugh Somerleyton is the owner of the Somerleyton Hall Estate in Suffolk and Norfolk, which encompasses Fritton Lake, a one-thousand acre rewilding project and holiday resort. A passionate conservationist, he has co-founded the WildEast initiative, with the aim of transforming the region of East Anglia into one of the world’s great nature recovery areas. Find out how you can support the WildEast initiative at wildeast.co.uk and learn more about the Fritton Lake rewilding project and eco-tourism at frittonlake.co.uk

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