Acres Floodplain Restoration: is this Norfolk's 4th rewilding project?
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Rewilding is an obvious tool for making Norfolk's intensively farmed landscapes more nature friendly (for more information on what rewilding is, refer to Rewilding Britain's definition). The largest of these projects is West Acre Estate's rewilding project, which stretches across nearly ~1,900 acres. This project it set to create a rich mosaic of habitat types, including wooded pasture, wetlands, "ghost ponds" (also known as pingos), chalk river restoration and wildflower meadows. To support the creation of this mosaic, the estate is utilising "wild-type" grazers - iron age pigs, Exmoor ponies and White Park cattle. Further details can be found here.
Based on publicly available information, Wild West Acre kicked off at some point in 2019. Around this time, significant changes were taking place to the stretch of the River Nar (a globally rare spring fed chalk stream) upstream of West Acre up to the eastern end of Castle Acre Common SSSI - which we now know forms part of Lord Coke's 25,000 acre Holkham Estate.
Photo: River Nar settling into its new, more natural floodplain channel in April 2021
WON could not originally identify a single hub of information for this specific project. It forms part of the Norfolk Rivers Trust (NRT) broader Catchment Plan for restoring the River Nar to a more natural and nature friendly state. The document outlining this Catchment Plan can be found on the NRT website. The Local Catchment Plan features a broad overview of initiatives needed to improve the ecological condition of the River Nar. From this document and conversations with some of the personnel involved, the restoration project revolved around studying historic maps of the area (such as Faden's 1797 Map of Norfolk) to see what course the river followed before various historic artificial modifications were carried out. These historic modifications were carried out for a variety of reasons, including to reduce flooding, to improve the flow of water that passed through the old water mill (now part of Mill House, still owned by West Acre Estate) and as part of the agricultural drainage programme of the 20th Century. The river was frequently dredged to maintain a deep channel.
The NRT states that these modifications have completely altered the nature of this chalk stream / river: spring-fed chalk streams would naturally carve a shallow channel through the landscape, instead of the deep "incised" channel that historic modifications (referred to as "canalisation" by the NRT) have created. As stated by the NRT, a naturally shallow chalk channel has several benefits:
[Shallow channels] allow the river to ‘breathe’. I.e., in the higher flows of winter or in a summer flood, the river naturally spills over its banks and deposits sediment along the side of the river. These gradually accumulate and colonise with plants. These riparian plants which grow in summer and partially recede in winter create a channel which naturally varies in size with the seasons.
This relationship between the selected, graded pattern of deposition and accretion and subsequent colonisation by plants forms the vital component in the dynamic processes of the spring-fed river, catalysing meanders and scours, pools and riffles."
Essentially, a 'breathing' river creates a margin of wetland floodplain habitat either side of the channel. Restoring the original channel allows for more diverse and dynamic ecosystem processes to take place, creating a more diverse habitat structure and supporting a more diverse set of species. This sounds a lot like Rewilding Britain's definition of rewilding.
Whilst the broader river catchment plan was developed by the NRT, when we approached them about the specific West Acre restoration project they stated it was actually largely largely driven by Charles Rangeley-Wilson and the Water Management Alliance (WMA). Charles Rangeley Wilson is a well-know angler and writer, who was recently asked by the Environment Agency, the Rivers Trust and and NGO known as the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) to chair a national chalk stream restoration group. The WMA is a group of 6 East Anglia-based Internal Drainage Boards.
Whilst trying to find out a bit more about Charles Rangeley-Wilson and his work on the project, we stumbled across this 10 minute video of Joe Crowley interviewing him for the Wild Trout Trust re chalk river restoration:
Usefully, they use the River Nar as the main example (indeed, they hold the interview whilst standing in the river). This video presents a great description of the project in a much more digestible and specific way than the broader Catchment Plan document.
On this search for further info we also found this video, produced by Natural England and highlighting the project as part of their Nature Recovery Network (fast forward to 2.37 to skip the other projects):
This video features a quick chat with both West Acre Estate's conservation manager and its owner. Whilst this project is referred to as part of Wild West Acre, this section of the River Nar restoration work extends beyond the official boundary of Wild West Acre into Castle Acre Common, which is owned by the neighbouring landowner, Lord Coke of Holkham Estate. On a recent site visit to the project, we noticed many of the fences had been taken up between Wild West Acre and Castle Acre Common. Furthermore, for several years prior to the river restoration work, Holkham Estate had been grazing Konik ponies on the common to help establish natural ecosystem processes - a defining characteristic of many rewilding projects.
Together, these factors (namely, a. restoration of the natural river channel to help create dynamic ecosystem processes; b. removal of fences with the neighbouring Wild West Acre rewilding project; c. introduction of a more natural grazing regime by 'wild-type' Konik ponies) suggests that the West Acre rewilding project is being allowed to spill across the boundaries of the estate onto Castle Acre Common. This has not been announced publicly, except indirectly via the above video. We would argue that this is a de facto rewilding project by Lord Coke, admittedly small-scale (we estimate this section of the Nar floodplain restoration project is circa 70 acres in size) but nonetheless interesting.
We have added this project to the Rewilding Norfolk map, referring to it as the "Acres Floodplain Restoration" to differentiate it from the larger Wild West Acre. An exciting example of artificially re-engineering a floodplain landscape to restore a more natural, dynamic and diverse wetland habitat, combined with the broader Knepp-style Wild West Acre rewilding project, which is utilising wild-type herbivores to achieve similarly dynamic and diverse ecosystem processes:
Photo: Screenshot of the Wildsands Project from the Rewilding Norfolk Map
We argue that this is Norfolk's 4th rewilding project, after Wild Ken Hill, Wild Massingham and Wild West Acre. According to our database of Norfolk's Rewilding Projects, this project takes the total acreage of land under rewilding in Norfolk to 3,883 acres, or 0.29% of Norfolk's total size (approximately 1,400,000 acres).