MORE than 380,000 acres of land in Britain is being “rewilded” as the nature-focused approach to managing landscapes grows in popularity, campaigners said.

A “Rewilding Network” now has close to 1,000 members, who are actively rewilding 155,248 hectares of land – an area larger than the North York Moors National Park – as well as 506 square kilometres (195 square miles) of seabed.

The figures have been put out to mark World Rewilding Day by Rewilding Britain, a charity which launched the network in 2021, saying it has smashed its growth targets of reaching 121,406 hectares of land in three years.

According to the charity, rewilding is the large-scale restoration of nature to the point it can take care of itself, by bringing back habitats and natural processes and, where appropriate, reintroducing lost species such as beavers.

It has proved controversial in some quarters, amid concerns it is switching land away from food production, but supporters say rewilded land can also produce food such as free range meat, provide jobs and boost the local economy through ecotourism.

Part of the Government’s approach to reforming farming subsidies in England will see land managers paid for large-scale projects which could include rewilding.

But in Wales, plans to require farmers to set land aside for trees and wildlife habitat to receive subsidies has prompted protests over job losses and the threat to farming businesses.

There are also concerns about rewilding being dominated by the owners of large estates imposing the practice on their land.

Forestry Journal: Deer by water in the rewilded landscape at Knepp, West Sussex Deer by water in the rewilded landscape at Knepp, West Sussex (Image: PA)

A snapshot of 58 sites from the Rewilding Network, from which data was collected this month, shows that one quarter are large estates, while the remaining three-quarters are public land, charities, community projects and farms.

Rewilding Britain chief executive Rebecca Wrigley said: “The rapid growth of the Rewilding Network, and the wide range of exciting and inspiring projects involved, offers a real story of hope for reversing nature loss and addressing climate breakdown, while creating a wealth of benefits for people.

“It’s a major step forward in helping achieve Rewilding Britain’s vision of a mosaic of species-rich habitats restored and connected across at least 30% of Britain’s land and sea by 2030.”

She added: “Communities, innovative partnerships, charities, pioneering landowners and farmers showing how nature recovery and food production go hand-in-hand are among those leading the way.”

Rewilding schemes include the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, which has used free-roaming grazers including cattle and ponies to create a mosaic of habitats which has boosted wildlife and led rare species such as turtle doves to breed in the landscape.

The community-led Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast) has been responsible for establishing Scotland’s first no-take zone (an area where no extractive activity is allowed) in Lamlash Bay, which now sits with a wider marine protected area, which are restoring sea habitats around Arran and the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast.

And the Doddington Estate in Lincolnshire has a mosaic of habitats including ancient woodland, wood pasture and lowland heath for wildlife to expand across previously arable land as rewilding unfolds.

Wildlife safaris and tours, new walking and cycling routes and other events are being developed at Doddington, which already has around 250,000 visits a year to its farm shop, two cafes, shops and onsite accommodation.

Estate owner Claire Birch said: “When we were farming conventionally it felt out of kilter with the rest of our business where we have a strong sustainability ethos.

“We’re so pleased to watch nature taking back the land.

“It’s early days in our 100-year plan but we’re already seeing and hearing change as our fields get woollier, insects start to rebound and rare birds appear.”

She said the estate was also working with neighbouring farmers to “allow positive tentacles of nature to spill out” from Doddington, with nature corridors, cleaner water and connected wildlife sites.