Norfolk landowners are showing how farms could be paid by developers for growing nature as well as food - using private investment to make biodiversity a "cash crop".

The Wendling Beck Environment Project is a habitat creation, nature restoration and regenerative farming initiative, spanning almost 2,000 acres near Dereham.

It is also a national pilot for a funding model under new Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) rules which will become mandatory from January 2024.

Once a developer has identified a plot of housing or industrial land, a survey will assess the amount of biodiversity and the quality of habitats lost, which must then be replaced with equivalent habitats, plus a net gain of at least 10pc, in order to gain planning permission.

If that cannot be provided on site, for example by ringfencing land for woodland, ponds or flower meadows, they can pay nearby landowners to create these habitats for them, ideally through a local BNG partnership, or by buying statutory credits from the government.

Dereham Times: Neighbouring landowners Glenn Anderson and Rosie Begg within the Wendling Beck project areaNeighbouring landowners Glenn Anderson and Rosie Begg within the Wendling Beck project area (Image: TNC & Lucy Carrigan)

Glenn Anderson, one of four neighbouring landowners in the project, said: "As a nation, of course we need to grow good quality, healthy food, but there needs to be a much better balance across the farmed landscape as well, because as part of the intensification of agriculture since the war we have lost a lot of priority habitats.

"So part of this project is to look at how can we monetise nature, to start to rebalance that as we face a future where we are trying to tackle the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis through land use change.

"But we also have this pragmatic realisation that you cannot just flick a switch and change this overnight. You have to systematically change this and, within a capitalist world where land has a lot of value, we are heading towards monetising nature as part of that process.

"Within BNG, the principle is that developers will offset habitat that is being lost, like for like, and then provide a minimum 10pc net gain, so nature never loses out.

"What we are saying is if there is a 'natural capital' value to society of having clean water, clean air, less pollutants, carbon sequestration, more species, and everything else then that should be valued accordingly because that is the product we are growing - and nature effectively becomes our cash crop."

Mr Anderson said the project idea originated in 2020, when Brexit and the phase-out of EU subsidies prompted him to look at other sources of revenue for his drought-prone farm, without relying on public funds.

After partnering with neighbouring farms to create "meaningful" scale, around 200 acres of habitat has already been created.

"That is about 10pc of the project, which has thrown up tonnes of learning about how you create things like lowland meadows, wet grassland, scrub, woodland, and heathland," he said.

"As we transition over, most of the arable land will come out of production, but those habitats we are creating will need managing, so we will be bringing in quite a lot of livestock as part of that process, and that will obviously go back into the food chain."

Dereham Times: Cattle grazing on wetlands at Wendling BeckCattle grazing on wetlands at Wendling Beck (Image: Daniel Casson)

The Wendling Beck project was selected as one of Natural England’s statutory biodiversity credits pilots.

"The way BNG policy works is that if a developer cannot secure a local offset they can buy statutory credits directly from government, to avoid the planning system being delayed and shut down by not being able to secure BNG offsets," said Mr Anderson.

"We can still deliver for the private market, and the local market, but we are also part of that pipeline back to government through statutory credits.

Dereham Times: Wetlands at Wendling BeckWetlands at Wendling Beck (Image: Daniel Casson)

"The numbers are quite generous on this, but you have to remember it is over a 30-year timeframe. We are taking land out for 30 years. If you take the existing agricultural revenues for farms across that area it is also a large number, and we need to build inflation into that.

"It is not for the faint hearted, but the rewards are there for the people who are committed to it."

Natural England said statutory biodiversity credits are priced high as a "last resort", to encourage developers to seek local offsets first. It will sell the credits on behalf of the government, if a developer can prove to the planning authority that local offsets are not available. The money will be invested into "habitat delivery" in England.

Dereham Times: Jordan Sharman, commercial manager for Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG)Jordan Sharman, commercial manager for Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) (Image: Norfolk FWAG)

Jordan Sharman is commercial manager at the Norfolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), one of the organisations working to link developers with landowners to create local BNG partnerships. 

"BNG supports the long-term financial viability of a farm," he said. "I think as we move forwards the attitudes of farmers will change and they will see this as a viable way to make money, to move into conservation and environmental farming.

"And these BNG credits, and the money they generate, could be really valuable to farms who want to access private finance to build a new barn, or build a farm shop, or buy a new tractor."

Natural England spokesman Simon Dilly said the Wendling Beck collaboration between farmers, local authorities, environmental charities and the private sector has been "vital" to the development of BNG and the statutory biodiversity credits policy.

He said: "Biodiversity Net Gain offers landowners another way to fund nature recovery on their land, alongside providing an alternative income stream to complement other business activities. Landowners can sell off-site biodiversity units to developers, provided that the habitat sites are registered and validated."