Farming 110 acres of mixed farm land across the rolling hills of Devon, ecological landscape architect and farmer Toby Diggens and wife Bella Lowes have collaborated with Environment Bank to create a Habitat Bank strategically located at the head of a severely polluted catchment.
Environment Bank leased this land from Toby and Bella and contracted the management back to them to create the first Habitat Bank in Devon, restoring the land to native species rich grassland, woodland and scrub and providing a new income to the farm.
I have studied the significant loss of our native landscape happening over the past 50 years which has thrown the natural balance dangerously out of kilter. I had read a lot in the farming press about nature restoration and new environmental schemes, and I found the Environment Bank’s approach really interesting as it is fully funded, they cover all capital costs, and guarantee an alternative income across a 30-year agreement.
Being involved in such a ground-breaking project is important to me, it’s one of the ways we can contribute to restoring nature and help reverse the environmental crisis. While the management of the landscape will provide tangible gains in ecosystem services to the area such as cleaner water into the rivers and increased biodiversity within the farmed landscape, it will also help with crop pollination and pest control.
Why did you choose the Environment Bank model?
We are committed to maintaining habitats to support and improve thriving flora and fauna and we have been helping to improve our natural landscape for over 15 years. We had purchased the land some 18-months before starting work with Environment Bank, for this purpose in particular. The land was low quality arable, used for growing swede, where the soil biology had been destroyed over the years.
Environment Bank’s team of ecologists began by initially taking a geological approach combined with cultural landscape studies and historical mapping data, followed by soils, connectivity and climate based analyses to garner the best possible habitats from the arable land.
We then created a bespoke habitat management plan to design the new habitats within the sphere of the Defra Biodiversity Metric. Going forward, the team will visit every year to assess its progress and will work with me to adapt the management plan if needed to guarantee the best possible outcome for nature.
What is the process so far?
The recovery programme on the land will be fully established over the next 10-12 years leading to the creation of a more functional and resilient natural landscape capable of supporting richer and more abundant biodiversity. The grassland is now a living laboratory after we sourced local species rich hay from culm grassland, characterised by ragged robin, southern marsh orchid and sneezewort.
We also plan to use mycorestoration of native fungi in the woodland areas along with woodchip beds this autumn to help the new woodland and scrub establish on top of the compacted clay soil due to relentless ploughing. The damp to wet grassland of the area once hosted flocks of ground nesting birds and critically rare butterflies so I am hoping they start to return as the habitat restores.
How has the ecosystem changed since you started?
In return for managing the habitat, we receive funding to lease the land to Environment Bank for a minimum of 30 years, which will increase with inflation over the life of the lease, as well as receiving a yearly management fee. Environment Bank use the land to raise BNG units to enable developers to meet their biodiversity requirements. If I was to do this myself any risk of failure would sit with us leaving us exposed, but with the Environment Bank model all risk and long-term liability is mitigated. They work with us on the management plan and take care of all the ongoing reporting and monitoring to prove the uplift.
To work alongside my current farming business we developed the habitat management plan to allow our herd of Devon Ruby Reds to roam over the grasslands they were bred to graze on without risk to the biodiversity uplift, in fact, they actually help. We don’t have arable cropage and the cows are managed holistically using a herded system of movement to mimic wild herds and to stimulate natural process and the plant communities, insects and wildlife which this ecological approach supports.
What financial benefits have you seen by creating a Habitat Bank?
There are so many benefits to protecting wildlife and nature fundamentally, but this partnership also allows us to guarantee an income for the next 30 years on land which we would have to conventionally farm very hard to see any profit. It’s quick and easy with the whole process only taking around three months from registration, and the team are always on hand to answer any queries or support you in whatever you need.
This Habitat Bank also offers a huge range of benefits to future generations to come, cleaner air from less farming emissions, sequestering carbon, creating fresher water as well as creating more nature-based economic opportunities. Also, by restoring biodiversity and in the process creating nutrient dense, minimal input meat, our local food chains can be repaired, meaning the production of food can be maintained with minimal costs.
We sell our beef to the local markets which we wouldn’t be able to do on large scale due to the farm’s size, therefore by restoring biodiversity we can facilitate high quality food chains and see nature return to our area in abundance.
What advice would you give to other farmers or landowners?
GET STARTED WITH HABITAT BANK CREATION
Find out the habitat options for your land and the income you could generate by registering your land or calling our team on 01904 202 990.