Forget gold, vintage wines and fine art: investors and landowners are being urged to put their money into Tamworth pigs, Dalmatian pelicans and ponds dug by beavers.
The Real Wild Estates Company says it has tens of millions of pounds already pledged to acquire land to rewild, restore biodiversity, store carbon – and make a healthy return for investors.
The “natural capital” startup, which was launched at the rewilded Somerset farm belonging to the environmentalist and fund manager Ben Goldsmith, aims to create more than 100,000 acres of wild land across Britain by 2030.
Ben Macdonald, head of the nature restoration for Real Wild Estates, said: “When you come back to Britain from places such as Yellowstone, it’s like walking into an art gallery where the paintings have been ripped off the wall. Our duty is to put those paintings back. I’d love to see a Norfolk Broads with Dalmatian pelicans, and Caledonian forest where lynx are keeping the deer in check.”
Macdonald, the author of Rebirding, a study of rewilding, said nature was in a state of emergency and recovery could only happen at scale, by persuading big landowners and investment funds to devote large tracts of land to wildlife restoration.
Real Wild Estates will be hired by landowners and investors to acquire land and oversee rewilding for profit. It expects rewilded land to generate diversified income streams from tourism, glamping and rewilding safaris, and from the government’s post-Brexit environmental land management schemes, as well as from payments for biodiversity and carbon offsetting whereby companies pay to sequestrate carbon through nature restoration.
The cost of carbon offsetting is expected to grow dramatically in the next decade, particularly with corporations keen to reduce their carbon emissions to net zero but lacking an understanding of how to do it. Developers will pay landowners to rewild to meet the new environment bill’s requirement that new housing estates lead to a “net gain” in biodiversity.
Julian Matthews, founder of the Real Wild Estates Company, said that rather than British firms paying for flawed carbon offsetting projects in distant countries where forest restoration schemes could not be easily verified, his company would help businesses sequester carbon and restore nature closer to home.
“Is it not better to bring the sequestration to where the carbon originates from? Let’s put it into our own landscapes,” he said.
Critics of rewilding say it removes food production as well as rural jobs – and traditional farmers – from the land. However, Real Wild Estates said it would be targeting “marginal” land that produced little food, and a key part of its business model was to provide more rural employment.
According to the charity Rewilding Britain, there has been a 54% increase in jobs on 32 estates in England that have embraced rewilding, with new roles including safari guides and hybrid ecologist-stock managers to look after free-roaming pigs, cattle and horses and the wider landscape.
The 1416.4 hectare (3,500 acre) Knepp estate in West Sussex employed 23 people as a conventional farm, but after being rewilded it has a staff of 47, with a further 200 people employed in companies that rent its converted farm buildings. Its ecotourism business last year brought in almost £1m.
Matthews said: “There is one job per 7km/sq in the Highlands – there are no jobs for rural communities. We aim to bring back jobs.” According to his company’s modelling, one contract farmer employed to manage 400 hectares could be replaced in five years by a rewilding scheme employing 35 people.
A report by the Green Finance Institute calculates there is a funding gap of up to £97bn between the government’s commitments to restore biodiversity and reach net zero in Britain and the public money available. According to Green Finance Institute analysts, this gap will have to be met by private investment.
Backers of Real Wild Estates include L’Oréal, which is investing in the new company through its regeneration fund, a €50m pot to help restore 1m hectares of degraded ecosystems and capture up to 20m tonnes of CO2, potentially creating hundreds of jobs.
According to Matthews, investors are keen to put their money into in the “natural capital space”, with consumer demand for wilderness and wellbeing holidays, public desire for action to save nature, and new payments for restoring soils, preventing floods and sequestering carbon enshrined in the environment bill.
Matthews said he was inspired by his experiences watching nature restoration and rewilding in southern Africa. “We all think this is new but it’s been happening around the globe very successfully for a long time. My goal with the Real Wild Estates Company is to make restoring nature profitable and viable.
“Rewilding isn’t about having wolves outside your door, it’s getting back to what our grandparents would have seen as perfectly normal. If I can’t make this work I need to be shot, because we’ve got real tailwinds behind us to make this happen.”