The Wendling Beck Exemplar Project is a habitat creation, nature restoration and regenerative farming project, spanning almost 2,000 acres of land north of the market town of Dereham in Norfolk.
The project is a collaboration between private landowners, local authorities, environmental NGOs, and Anglian Water. It aims to transform land use for environmental benefit, whilst also building community and environmental resilience and is looking to sell multiple ecosystem services; biodiversity net gain (BNG), nutrient neutrality (NN) and natural flood management (NFM), in addition to longer-term revenue streams from above and below ground carbon.
There will also be a significant reduction in operational carbon due to the change of farming systems and the subsequent reduction in synthetic fertilisers, fossil fuels and agro-chemicals. (From 2020 to 2022, the bulk of the farmed area reduced both nitrogen and chemical inputs by approximately 50% and pretty much stopped applying synthetic phosphate).
A range of habitats are already being created including around 65 acres of lowland heath, 15 acres of parkland, 80 acres of species-rich lowland meadow, 6 acres of 6 acres of floodplain wetland mosaic, 2 acres of wet woodland, 600 metres of rare chalk stream creation. Some 7km of new fencing and 2km of new water infrastructure have been installed – to enable livestock to manage the new habitats.
With many thanks to the following individuals for their time and insight:
Glenn Anderson, Project Lead, Wendling Beck Exemplar Project
Date Published: 08/12/2022
The Wendling Beck Exemplar Project (WBEP) started with four neighbouring farmers (two of whom were in the same farmer cluster). They shared similar challenges and goals. They had witnessed increasing droughts and dry springs, which were placing financial pressure on the businesses – pressure that they recognised would only be exacerbated by the decrease in future farm subsidies. At the same time, they were keen to reduce their role in climate change and biodiversity loss – they had noticed a loss in the abundance of species on their own farms. These factors led the four landowners to want to build both long-term financial and environmental resilience into their businesses by diversifying or supplementing income through environmental improvements.
Two of the landowners had already carried out a basic carbon audit using a free online tool recommended by Farmers Weekly. “While it was far from perfect, it showed us that nitrogen and diesel were the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint. So, we needed to get away from burning diesel and putting nitrogen on the land,” says Glenn Anderson, project lead. This led the farmers to explore regenerative agriculture in some detail – but as they evaluated all of the different options it made greater economic and ecological sense to focus on the delivery of ecosystem services (derived from land-use change). This allowed them to concentrate on delivering high quality nature-based solutions across the majority of the land whilst transforming a commercial blackcurrant operation into a regenerative system on a dedicated area of the project. There is a strong financial benefit. “We’ve gone from circa £800K / year revenue on the ag businesses, from sales and subsidies, to around £100 million over 30 years (net present value) from the implementation of nature-based solutions and regenerative currants” says Anderson.
Working with Partners
Anderson says the group knew that scale would be important in delivering nature-based solutions. “We know from the Lawton report in 2010 that scale and connectivity result in a better environmental impact, and it also improves the business case.” It is too soon to recruit neighbouring farmers, who are still focused on production, but Anderson says WBEP will hopefully serve as an exemplar in the future to attract more farmers to connect additional areas of habitat to the project.
There were other partners who could be approached sooner, to help reach greater scale and drive connectivity. The original four farmers, of which Anderson is one, met with Norfolk County Council, which own a site adjacent to the project, and they were willing to invest in connecting this to the project area across the Wendling Beck river, and develop an existing facility into an environmental education centre, along with a new cycle path to link up with the town centre.
The Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) is also a partner in the project. It has SSSI sites in the middle of the project and the landscape masterplan has been developed with this in mind. Anderson says NWT have been a great mentor given their experience in project development, delivery and long-term management.
The WBEP group also engaged the Local Planning Authority (LPA) early in its scoping as it had identified BNG and nutrient neutrality as potential income streams. They wanted the LPA to consider their site as a local provider of environmental credits for developers. It took some time to make that connection. “We initially struggled to get planners involved as we were some way off mandatory net gain (due Nov 23) and nutrient neutrality was not on the radar at that time, so we took a top-down approach. We presented the vision and ambition the head of environment, and the cabinet came out to visit the site – then the planners also became interested. We now work closely with them on BNG and nutrient neutrality, and are also helping them think through the role of conservation covenants and responsible bodies,” says Anderson.
In terms of other supportive partners, Anderson lists Natural England, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Norfolk Rivers Trust (NRT) and Norfolk FWAG. “Norfolk Rivers Trust connected us with TNC and they have helped with resourcing, mentoring and the financial and legal structuring. Their support has been phenomenal.” TNC also paid for an ecological baseline for BNG and funded eftec to carry out a natural capital audit. Eftec have since helped train the WBEP team on natural capital accounting. Natural England have supported the project from inception and WBEP is now working strategically on Nature Recovery and BNG at a local and national level.
Anglian Water (AW) complete the project stakeholder group. They became involved in the project once the vision had been defined and bought into it straight away. They are driving the delivery of nature based solutions across their assets and have a large infrastructure site within the vicinity of the project. Says Anderson: “Peter Simpson (CEO) arranged to come and see what we wanted to try and achieve and has been really supportive ever since”. AW are now looking at buying credits for BNG (for construction within the works), they are a large carbon buyer as part of their net-zero strategy and flood modelling has shown that the project has the ability to reduce flood risk to their Dereham Water Recycling Centre. “By working collaboratively with Anglian Water we are learning together on the best ways of delivering solutions, including the contracts and governance that go with delivery,” adds Anderson.
Learning from Others
Anderson says the team looked at nearby Wild Ken Hill and the Knepp Estate for learnings but the financing models were quite different, although they continue to collaborate with them and share ideas. They also looked at international models, particularly in the US (where TNC has multiple water resilience projects). “We immersed ourselves in webinars and networking to learn as much as possible,” says Anderson.
Initial Costs and Grant Funding and Pro-bono Support
Anderson says that as of October 2022 more than £750,000 in grant, pro-bono, philanthropic support and landowner contributions has gone into the project – this includes pro bono work from the partner NGOs, £100,000 from the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF), £5,000 from local charities and grant funding from the Natural England BNG pilot scheme, and the Natural England Nature Recovery Programme, along with a Landscape Recovery – Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) test and trial. Law firm, Morrison and Foerster have also provided pro bono legal work developing the Op-Co (operating company) which will deliver the project. “It’s expensive and money doesn’t go far, but we do expect costs for projects to decrease significantly over time,” says Anderson. All of the learnings from the project will be made available for others to learn from.
Further funding opportunities are being sought for research with the University of East Anglia (UEA). “We approached UEA as they are one of the world’s leading institutions for environmental services. We are looking to work closely with them to monitor the changes to ecology, soil and water within the project as well as the benefits to wider society. We have multiple PHD and Masters students working on the project and are always looking for innovative ways to fund research and collect data. PHD students are particularly helpful because they are longer-term – and we do need long term data collection as it’s a 30-year process.”
To help test initial market viability, eftec provided a market model. “Some of those early calculations were just estimates such as looking at BNG units per hectare and value per unit. Eftec’s model based units at £20K a unit (it was about £11K when we began and is now £25-£35K). But the model looked like it would stack up and that gave us the confidence to go ahead,” says Anderson.
Since that early model WBEP have developed a much more detailed finance and investment plan. This includes quite granular market modelling undertaken by Biodiversity Capital using GIS spatial data to quantify different types of development by geographical area. “This looked at a much broader market that we had originally envisaged and expanded the market demand beyond housing to include employment, major infrastructure and minerals, all of which will have significant demand”.
TNC also appointed Ricardo Energy & Environment to undertake a detailed analysis of Nutrient Neutrality demand within the district, along with the quantification of nutrient credits that could be delivered by WBEP. This has helped give the finance model much more accuracy and, coupled with detailed cost data for capital works and long-term management, enables WBEP to forecast a realistic picture of total costs and revenues.
Permits and Planning
Anderson says they weren’t aware when they began that they would need an Environmental Impact Assessment, which they are currently working on. And in terms of planning, planning permission is needed for the cycle path and bridge links that the County Council is looking at. Consent has also been required from Highways for fence and gate designs where they have crossed public rights of way.
In hindsight, Anderson says the group would have engaged the community earlier. “We assumed everyone would be behind our vision, but once we started spade-in-ground works rumours started to take a negative spin.” Anderson says they wrote to local residents and held a community workshop to explain the project in more detail and it quickly remedied the situation, actually generating a host of volunteers, but would advise that projects start with community engagement before work starts on the ground.
A short film outlining the full project plan can be viewed below.
A further short film explaining the project approach can be viewed here.