This article was first published in the Financial Times. 
I am lucky enough to be raising my family in south Somerset, where a once great wild wood pasture named Selwood is reawakening, inkblot-like, spreading outwards from a place called Brewham. Here, barbed wire fencing has been removed, field drains pulled up, ditches filled in, streams rewiggled, ghost ponds resurrected, and water eddies and pools naturally through the land. Pockets of crab apple, dog rose, hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble are popping up through the fields, whose arbitrary shapes are now dissolving into the landscape. In the warmer months, the ground is awash with wildflowers, whose colour composition shape-shifts endlessly as the summer goes on. During the winter months, finches, thrushes and starlings form mixed flocks which hop noisily from one patch of thistles and dock to the next. By night, moths abound, and by day, butterflies, dragonflies and other flying insects keep up a constant hum of activity, most of all along an extensive wetland strung together by newly arrived wild beavers along the bottom of the valley. This place is a paradise, so much so that the local NHS is now prescribing visits for groups of patients, who arrive gawping to immerse themselves in healing power of wild nature of the kind that we are simply unused to experiencing in Britain today.
Selwood was nothing special once among Britain’s less agriculturally productive landscapes, which were for the most part grazed and browsed extensively by small numbers of native cattle, turned out for much of the year to roam where they liked, eat what they wanted, sleep where they chose. Some farmers also turned out pigs. There were few man-made fields, until the arrival of steam machinery, at which point Selwood Forest joined the rest of Britain’s vast neon green patchwork quilt. Life, colour, birdsong, wild animals have largely been drained from the landscape, in a process which has accelerated during the last half century as area-based government farm subsidies have ensured Selwood has been farmed to the max. And for what? Certainly not food security.
Approximately 85% of the food comes from just 20% of our land, largely in the fertile flatlands of the east of Britain. Across much of the rest of our country, productive farming is simply not viable. Indeed, the least productive 20% of our land produces less than 2% of our food. It was Warren Buffett who said that ‘only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked.’ With the phasing down of area-based farm subsidies, the restoration of nature offers the best and only way for farm businesses across our less productive landscapes to survive and prosper. The fact that native cattle and pigs, like their wild ancestors the aurochs and the wild boar, are both keystone species whose activities are essential for the healthy functioning of the ecosystem holds the key to the hand-in-hand renewal of nature and farming in much of Britain. Without the cattle, eventually you get a dense, dark, closed-canopy forest which harbours little life. Without the rootling of pigs, the ground becomes thatched with grasses and other stronger plants, outcompeting the wildflowers and excluding the more ephemeral species.
The government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme, which replaces old-style subsidies, will directly reward farmers for the stewardship and restoration of soil and nature, with the most generous payments reserved for farmers in those landscapes, like Selwood, which are best suited to the ambitious recovery of nature. In the wake of the publicly-funded schemes, a plethora of private markets for nature recovery is growing up; including one named ‘nutrient neutrality’, in which water companies are paying farmers for naturally storing, filtering and cleaning water on their land; councils and the Environment Agency are paying farmers to restore sponge-like landscapes in order to reduce the cycle of flooding and drought that has been dramatically exacerbated by the decline of nature; there is a new Biodiversity Net Gain market, in which developers are now required to offset any harm they do to nature by acquiring credits from new nature banks; and voluntary carbon and biodiversity markets are looming large. Indeed, Guernsey’s own financial services regulator has introduced a regulated natural capital fund designation to help investors access nature related funds. On top of all of this, nature tourism is booming. People are no longer content with a campsite among hordes of sheep in a barren valley; they want nature, real nature, preferably with wild swimming and beavers. I have helped to create a new business, Nattergal Ltd, which seeks to deliver nature restoration at scale, while providing investors with a financial yield. In other words, nature recovery is becoming an investible asset class. With the shifting of incentives, the times really are changing, at long last. Nature bounces back fast, if we choose to allow it. And it’s happening now, in Selwood, and across swathes of Britain.
Ben Goldsmith is Chief Executive Officer at Menhaden Plc and was a keynote speaker at Guernsey Finance’s Sustainable Finance Week, held in Guernsey 18th – 22nd September 2023. 

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