Guest blog – Wild Ken Hill by Dominic Buscall

I am drawn to difficult problems. I spent the first five years of my career helping companies solve their most complex business problems with L.E.K. Consulting, and in the last few years I have become particularly interested in the UK’s land use conundrum. What do we want from our land, and how do we get it?

I am now managing Wild Ken Hill –  a 4,000-acre ecological restoration and sustainable farming project that seeks to help answer this conundrum.

Wild Ken Hill: our vision for land use in the UK

The Wild Ken Hill project is being undertaken at our family-owned Ken Hill estate in west Norfolk. The estate has a long history of nature conservation and ‘sympathetic farming’; even before the genesis of Wild Ken Hill, the site was of international significance for arable plants and bats (although not designated as such), and insecticide had not been applied for 7 years on any of the farmland.

In 2018, nonetheless, we decided to implement a ‘step-change’ in the way we manage land. This was brought about for two reasons. Firstly, we became convinced that the UK’s worsening biodiversity, climate, and now health crises demanded a more radical land management approach, with much greater attention paid to soil health, air and water quality, carbon, and biodiversity (or natural capital).

Secondly, Brexit. The UK’s vote to leave the EU is already redefining the economics of farming in the UK, particularly on ‘unproductive’ land. Although we do not fall in the 42% of UK farms that would not be profitable without the EU’s Single Farm Payment, prior to 2018 we did farm land with very marginal profitability. The land was characterised with blowaway sands, persistent black grass, and subsequently high input costs and low yields. By 2027 (the final year of Single Farm Payments in the UK), the commercial viability of farming this land will be highly questionable. Considering the decreasing fertility of soils in the UK, in the long-term, it looked even worse. The provision of public goods (more later) paired with a new nature-based tourism proposition seemed to offer a profitable, alternative form of land use, which also aligned to our environmental goals.

This line of thinking manifested itself in a balanced, three-prong approach to managing land. We are now employing 1)  regenerative agriculture, 2) rewilding, and 3) traditional conservation techniques side-by-side in different, adjacent areas of our site.

We believe each of these three prongs is significant in its own right: our regenerative agriculture integrates a variety of cutting-edge techniques into a complete package, our rewilding project recently joined the constellation of Europe’s leading wild landscapes comprising the European Rewilding Network, and our traditional conservation techniques have delivered what has been described as the most significant piece of nature conservation in Norfolk in 2019 – a new high-level water system for 500 acres of freshwater marsh (interested readers can find out more about the individual ‘prongs’ on our website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages).

We also think that Wild Ken Hill is much more than the sum of its three parts. Firstly, we think the combination of these three techniques in a single site offers (in a microcosm) a truly scalable vision for land use in the UK. Our simple formula for making land choices is also applicable elsewhere: loosely speaking, we sustainably farm good quality land, we look after our existing wildlife interest with traditional conservation methods, and we rewild the rest. Refining and elevating this straightforward formula could help us to finally make the most out of land in the UK.

Second, Wild Ken Hill will deliver a fantastic blend of benefits to local communities, the public, the UK government, and indeed ourselves as land managers. We will produce healthy, low-input food, improve soil health, sequester carbon, boost biodiversity, provide our local communities with greater opportunities as well as better access to nature, and grow the size and sustainability of our own business – all from one site. In sum, we envisage a resilient and engaging natural space that delivers a variety of public goods – a vision that seems like a win for all interested parties.

And lastly, our project can help mediate the polarised debate surrounding rewilding. Proponents of rewilding – which includes us – are often criticised for not producing food or for wishing to remove humans from the landscape. Wild Ken Hill demonstrates that farming and rewilding can coexist, even providing mutual benefit, and that rewilding is not only compatible with modern populated English landscapes, but in fact can enhance them.

Thank you for reading, and please don’t hesitate to contact me at dominic@wildkenhill.co.uk to learn more about Wild Ken Hill.

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5 Replies to “Guest blog – Wild Ken Hill by Dominic Buscall”

  1. How we love this place. A walk along the sea bank with birds all around is always a delight, winter or summer. The finale also welcome, a pint and meal at the Rose and Crown. On a cloudless day such as this, we could be there in 90 minutes. If only.

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    1. There is no doubt that the lock-down, necessary though it has been, is frustrating to all of us, preventing us from going to places we would otherwise love to visit.
      The comforting thought here is that the work being done at Ken Hill is ensuring that a healthy diversity of wildlife is established and maintained at the site which should endure long beyond the lock-down. Hopefully you will soon be able to visit the site again and celebrate with a pint at the Rose and Crown. Meanwhile stay safe and savour the prospect of future outings once the epidemic has died down.

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  2. Inspirational - because it looks brilliant for birds, but equally important the thinking behind it. Blending different approaches, suited to the land and conservation interest, onto a whole has to becthe way ahead. It's extraordinary how conservative ( witha small c !) so many conservationists have become - seeming to want everything neatly divided into nature reserve or farming, neat habitats - heathland, reddbed etc. Also a strange belief in the urgent need to produce food - as you and Knepp have recognised there is land that was only ever driven into intensive production by subsidies that may have made sense in 1947 but have made no sensebon the last 30 years. Great thinking, great future landscape, good luck !

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  3. Sounds like a great idea for a lot of the UK lowlands. A good point too about trying to mediate the very polarised debate.

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