Somerset Wildlife Trust announces strategic project on Somerset Levels

Somerset Wildlife Trust announces strategic project on Somerset Levels

Michael Holman

Honeygar to drive nature recovery network expansion and to help pioneer new Nature-based Solutions

Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) is pleased to announce that it has secured the acquisition of Honeygar Farm, situated between its Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve (NNR) and Catcott nature reserves, at the heart of the Avalon Marshes landscape on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

The 46.5 hectare site and two further parcels of land also purchased, adjacent to the farm and SWT’s nearby Westhay Heath reserve, will bring the Trust’s total landholding in the Avalon Marshes landscape to 418 hectares. The Trust has funded the initial land purchase of Honeygar Farm with support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation (EFF) which has bought it on the Trust’s behalf to be repaid through fundraising. The Trust will be launching a major Honeygar fundraising campaign in the coming year to repay EFF by 2023 and undertake initial work on site.

The Trust was the first to buy land on the Avalon Marshes in the 1970s and developed what is now Westhay Moor NNR. Other environment organisations, including RSPB and Natural England, joined the approach, and the area is now an internationally important wetland landscape. Home to a range of wildfowl, waders, rare insects, plants and reptiles and threatened native species, this vital landscape is at an ecological crossroads with significant change coming due to the new government agri-environment scheme providing funding for farmers and owners to deliver more for nature, and the need to adapt to a changing, warmer climate. 

Honeygar was identified by SWT as an important site to provide habitat and green corridors which, when managed for nature, will strengthen nature connectivity within the Avalon Marshes landscape and contribute to Somerset’s wider Nature Recovery Network, in turn improving biodiversity and bioabundance of species on the site. 

The soils of the Avalon Marshes are mostly peat that have been drained for decades, if not centuries, and extracted for sale as compost. 80% of UK peatlands are in poor conditions so are net emitters of carbon. One of the key actions at Honeygar will be to rewet the peat soils on the site, to store carbon as well as create vital habitat for a range of species that might include egrets, snipe, skylarks, water voles and otters. 

By putting nature back in charge to transform agricultural land that is of low value for biodiversity into something amazing for wildlife and people, Honeygar will contribute to the goal of at least 30% of land and sea being managed positively for nature by 2030 as highlighted in its new 10 year strategy, Wilder Somerset 2030, launched just last month.

Honeygar will also provide the Trust with an opportunity to explore, develop, test and deliver a range of Nature-based Solutions, such as carbon storage and phosphate neutrality, alongside driving huge gains for wildlife.  The site will provide opportunities for people to engage with nature, and plans will be progressed for the farm buildings themselves, but it is expected that their development will be part of a second phase of activity.

Georgia Stokes, CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust explains why the acquisition is so significant:

“Nature is in crisis. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Nothing short of big ambition and bold ideas is going to deliver the changes needed for nature to recover, for the abundance and range of species to return, and for us to meet the climate targets we need to by 2030. We have got to do more and faster to face these twin crises of the ecological and climate emergencies, and this is one way Somerset Wildlife Trust can contribute. Nature can’t wait.

“Honeygar is a vital missing link in the ecological network of the Avalon Marshes, at the heart of the Somerset Levels and Moors. Through creation of wildlife-rich habitats, protecting and rewetting the precious peat soils, and providing important water and carbon storage, Honeygar connects many existing nature-rich sites including our own Westhay Moor, Westhay Heath and Catcott Complex nature reserves. The site will help us towards our goal of putting 30% of land into recovery for nature, a goal shared with the UK government. More than that, Honeygar will provide us with the opportunity to learn many lessons and share our learning with other landowners, partners and communities. 

“We have received incredibly positive feedback from so many already so we know there is a real appetite to support us on what will be a long but incredibly exciting journey.  As part of today’s announcement, we are also able to share that with our Avalon Marshes partner, RSPB, we have been successful in securing an award of £906,000 through the Green Recovery Challenge Fund Round 2, a Government fund developed by Defra, administered on their behalf by the National Heritage Lottery Fund in partnership with Natural England, the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.  This grant will support work across three sites within the Avalon Marshes, SWT’s Westhay Moor NNR and Honeygar, and the RSPB’s Ham Wall NNR.”

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England says: 

“Places like Honeygar represent fantastic opportunities to demonstrate how simply allowing nature to regenerate itself can be a powerful solution to the ecological and climate crises. Given its prime position, Honeygar has huge potential to connect nature at a landscape scale, embodying the work we’re leading on the Nature Recovery Network and delivering multiple benefits such as carbon storage, recreation opportunities, water management and improvements to water quality. I am incredibly excited at its potential and look forward to following its journey.”

Simon Clarke, Head of Nature Recovery adds: 

“Somerset Wildlife Trust has owned and managed land on the Somerset Levels and Moors for over 50 years - we understand how this highly managed, complex landscape works.  In moving Honeygar from being a site of high to low carbon emissions and then to sequestration, we hope to take forward our approach to Nature-based Solutions and trial and develop management techniques that have positive impacts on water quality, storing water for natural flood management and to hold water in drier seasons all while improving the site for wildlife.  Honeygar will continue to contribute to food production with the land in grazing and providing hay / grass cuts for our neighbouring farmers. 

“We’ll be working with the University of West of England (UWE) to develop the evidence base at Honeygar and contribute to national understanding of carbon monitoring, data that we can share with the wider community interested in the future of the Somerset Levels and climate change mitigation. It will be a very different site to our existing reserves and an entirely new approach for the Trust.” 

Rachael Fickweiler, Head of Nature Reserves & Land Management says:

“Our priority for the oncoming year is to get to know the land better and see how it responds to being taken out of intensive management.  The emphasis is on restoring natural processes and seeing what comes – so we’re not in a position to fix a clear end point in mind for habitat creation. Thanks to funding from players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, with the support of UWE and the Somerset Environmental Records Centre, we have started our baseline carbon, soil, species and habitat monitoring work, a vital first step alongside hydrological assessments, in collecting the key information we will need to monitor change across the site over the coming decades.

“Once our baseline monitoring has been established, we will look to manage the land in a way that enables the peat soils to recover, creating diversity in the grasslands with low intensity grazing systems, reducing drainage of the land where possible to enable wet grassland, and managing ditches sensitively for the species that they support – all of which will enable the land to store more carbon and water, reduce nutrient levels and support abundant wildlife.”

To read Wilder Somerset 2030 , the Trust’s new 10 year strategy go here. To find out more about Honeygar, go here.

Find out more about Honeygar

ENDS

For interviews and further information please contact Kirby Everett on 01823 652413, 07789933287, or kirby.everett@somersetwildlife.org

You can follow us on Twitter at SomersetWT or Facebook on @Somersetwildlifetrust

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About Somerset Wildlife Trust

Somerset Wildlife Trust is a nature conservation charity. Its purpose is to restore and protect the populations of species across the county and the habitats they call home. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to nature, natural habitats and the ecosystems that support our life on earth.  Our aims are to help address both the ecological and climate crises and put nature back into people’s lives.
Nature reserves and protected sites on their own are not enough. In order to reverse the decline in species’ diversity and abundance, and create resilient landscapes and habitats for wildlife and for people that can adapt to climate change, we need to: 

  • encourage and support landowners to manage their land positively for nature; create more space for nature; 
  • connect wildlife-rich spaces across the wider landscape to create a robust Nature Recovery Network for Somerset; and 
  • create a movement of people – at least 1 in 4 – that take action for nature’s recovery across Somerset as part of Team Wilder.  

This is at the core of our new 10-year strategy. Nationally the Wildlife Trusts are calling for at least 30% of land to be managed positively for nature by 2030. What we do in Somerset must contribute to that national ambition.

You can read our full 10 year strategy, Wilder Somerset here