On the short walk down to the off-grid boathouse, I count over a dozen marbled white butterflies criss-crossing the path, fluttering in the gentle summer breeze. There are other butterflies too: Essex skippers, meadow browns, and ringlets. At one point, by the settling pond of an enormous reed water purification system, I spot a clump of ragworts with orange and black striped cinnabar moth caterpillars clinging to their stems. There are bees buzzing all around in the warm summer sun, birds chirping – the place has the feel of a nature reserve. As I walk round the corner of an ancient oak and ash forest, I come to the exquisite hexagonal boathouse set in splendid isolation in front of a pontoon leading down to a long lake that stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s a wild swimmer’s dream.
It's high summer and I’ve come to Sheepdrove Farm, a 2,000-acre (810-ha) organic farm in the North Wessex Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The boathouse is a basic, unfussy hideaway for two, with a double room, a small kitchen, shower, plenty of natural light and large bifold doors through which you can gaze out over the lake. It is heated by an air source heat pump; all the energy it draws on is generated onsite through two wind turbines and solar panels (there are 900 across the farm), and all wastewater is treated through the reedbed water filtration system.
The eco credentials of the boathouse are impressive, but it’s the scale and diversity of environmentally sustainable projects throughout the farm that creates the feeling you’re staying somewhere special. There’s an eco conference centre, a natural burial wood, a wedding venue and a former farm building that sleeps up to 18. While I was there, the staff were getting busy for a photo shoot to launch a new electric car.
For over 25 years, Sheepdrove has been at the forefront of sustainable, regenerative and organic farming across its green pastures, wildflower meadows, ancient woodland and fields of heritage grains on chalk downland. It is now one of an increasing number of farms and rural estates that are using the income and profile of nature-based tourism to help fund and publicise rewilding projects, restoring large-scale ecosystems to help repair damaged habitats, regenerate degraded landscapes and promote more biodiversity. It is otherwise known as ‘re-naturing’ as they are re-engineering the land as nature intended. Governments, too, are putting in place measures to encourage rewilding as a means to combat climate change, on land and at sea, through the storing of carbon in soil, bogs, scrub and trees, and the restoration of seagrass meadows and kelp forests. Examples include rewetting of peat bogs, restoration of watercourses, creation of wetlands, removal of intensive grazing, reintroduction of key flora and fauna, allowance of natural regeneration and planting forests.
Sheepdrove (from top right): The view from boathouse across the swimming lake; the pontoon in front of the boathouse; electric bikes in front of the boathouse; one of the many wildflower meadows.
Here are some examples of other places, like Sheepdrove, where you can see rewilding in action while contributing to much needed regeneration of the land.
Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex
Camp in a meadow or stay in one of the glampsites (treehouses, tents, yurts, shepherd’s huts), and go on safari around one of the largest and best-known rewilding estates in lowland Britain, where you will see herds of wild ponies, cattle, deer and pigs as they roam 3,500 acres (1,400ha) of Sussex, driving the forces of habitat regeneration. The co-owner, Isabella Tree, is the author of the seminal book on the subject that charts how she and her husband transformed their loss-making farm in lowland Britain into a ground-breaking rewilding project: Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (kneppsafaris.co.uk). Keep up to date with this evolving project by watching Kneppflix – snapshot videos of the latest happenings (e.g. The art of roaring). knepp.co.uk
There are two treehouses and several other glamping options, including bell tents, at Knepp Safaris
Kingsdale Head, North Yorkshire
A 1,500-acre (600-ha) upland farm near the village of Ingleton, just below Whernside, the highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales. The owners are working to restore the natural hydrology of the wet heathland and grassland habitats, enabling it to hold more water and store more carbon by using a small herd of cattle to change the impact of grazing, while reintroducing more native shrubs and trees. Yo u can see it all while staying in a cottage next to the main farmhouse – explore the farm’s sheltered woodland and waterfalls, and venture further to the Forest of Bowland. kingsdalehead.com
Ken Hill Estate, Norfolk
One of the filming locations for BBC’s Springwatch programme, this estate’s rewilding project is a much about regenerative agriculture as it is about nature recovery, demonstrating that land can be used to tackle climate change as well as improve air and water quality. Join guided tours of the farm and the extensive rewilding area and learn about vital grazing of the Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and Red Poll cattle, as well as the variety of wildlife, including beavers. wildkenhill.co.uk
Ken Hill in Norfolk runs guided tours to see rewilding in action
Dundreggan Rewilding Centre, Inverness
Based at its own 10,000-acre (4,000-ha) estate at Dundreggan in the Scottish Highlands, Trees for Life is working to restore ancient Caledonia Forest from the last remains of this original wild forest, especially around Glen Affric and Glenmoriston. Visit the centre for the day or stay at the estate as a conservation volunteer, or at its bothy in the nature reserve of Glen Affric. treesforlife.org.uk
Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Sutherland
Owner Paul Lister has for many years been one of the most vocal advocates of rewilding. His 23,000-acre (9,300-ha) reserve includes extensive native tree planting, peatland restoration, outdoor learning for teenagers and multiple wildlife conservation projects. Stay in fully catered lodges (for groups of up to 30) or go self-catering 7 miles (11.3km) away at the off-grid Deanich Lodge (pictured above), which sleeps ten. The income from your stay will contribute to The European Nature Trust (below). alladale.com
Rewilding Britain was founded in 2015 to restore ecosystems across Britain. Its manifesto is to see ‘a mosaic of species-rich habitats restored and connected across at least 30 per cent of Britain’s land and sea by 2030’, which it hopes to achieve by the creation of core rewilding areas across at least 5 per cent of Britain, and the establishment of nature-enhancing land and marine uses across at least 25 per cent of Britain. rewildingbritain.org
Rewilding Europe is based in The Netherlands and has been working since 2011 to create rewilded landscapes in over ten regions across Europe, including the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal, The Danube Delta in Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and the Oder Delta in Germany and Poland. rewildingeurope.com
The European Nature Trust
Discover some of the last remaining wild corners of Europe in Italy, Romania and Spain on a week-long conservation holiday where you’ll be guided by local experts and meet with ecologists working to save habitats and species. A portion of the cost of your holiday includes a donation to the foundations and charities you meet. The European Nature Trust (TENT) was founded by Alladale’s Paul Lister, and the trips are organised by the Gloucester-based outdoor conservation holiday specialist tour operator Steppes Travel. theeuropeannaturetrust.com
European Safari Company
Support wild nature and the reintroduction of species in Europe by joining one of 40 safari holidays in Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. Holidays including wolf tracking in Italy’s Apennines and bison tracking in the Tarcu Mountains of Romania. Five per cent of your booking goes directly to the local Rewilding Europe organization, funding projects such as bear corridors in the Central Apennines, the reintroduction of bison in the Southern Carpathians and developing wildlife reserves in Croatia’s Velebit Mountains. europeansafaricompany.com
Other places to see rewilding in action
Broughton Sanctuary, Yorkshire: Stay in a range of self-catering holiday homes on this 3,000-acre (1,200-ha) estate, home to the Broughton Sanctuary Nature Recovery Programme. broughtonhall.co.uk
Rewilding Escapes, Scotland: Join a week-long, organized holiday for small groups in some of the wilder areas of Scotland, including the Highlands and the Knoydart Peninsula. scotlandbigpicture.com
Coombeshead, Devon: Camp in a small meadow or stay in one of several
shepherd’s huts at the edge of a 150-acre (61-ha) rewilding project close to Dartmoor. rewildingcoombeshead.co.uk
This is an edited extract from The Green Traveller (Pavilion, £18.99)