Norfolk's 'Land Healer' believes farmers can save the countryside

Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, has written a book named "Land Healer"

Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, has written a book named "Land Healer" - Credit: Danielle Booden / Penguin Books

An optimistic vision of how "farming can save the countryside" has been outlined in a new book by a Norfolk environment expert.

Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the 25,000-acre Holkham Estate near Wells, is the author of "Land Healer", due to be published on June 23.

It is partly a memoir, recounting the lessons learned in a 30-year career which has seen him recognised as a leading national voice on farmland conservation.

It highlights the challenges of restoring wildlife to a countryside ravaged by decades of intensive agriculture.

Belted Galloway cattle grazing at Holkham National Nature Reserve

Belted Galloway cattle grazing at Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Jake Fiennes

But it also explores how a "time of seismic change" in British agricultural policy - driven by a post-Brexit shift from EU subsidies to environmental incentives - has created "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a significant difference very quickly".

"This is a story of hope," said Mr Fiennes. "This is a story of what is possible.

"The book is saying how easily achievable it is to put the wrongs right. The removal of hedges, the draining of land, the intensification of agriculture for cheaper food is what has reduced the state of our nature. 

"Quite small interventions, put in place for the right reason, that don't have huge impacts on your business, can have significant benefits to nature.

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"But it is not a bed of roses out there. Everyone needs to be committed to this. I cannot have one farm of 100ha absolutely smashing it out of the park with biodiversity and natural capital, unless my neighbour and his neighbour and his neighbour's neighbour are doing it.

"So it has got to work at a farm level, at a parish level, at a county level, at a catchment level - that is the only way it is going to work.

"It is not rocket science. It is quite easy and we can do it. We don't have to export our environmental responsibilities by importing food from other countries. We can produce healthy nutritious affordable food while still having space for nature."

Geese flying over new wetlands at Holkham National Nature Reserve

Geese flying over new wetlands at Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Danielle Booden

Wetland Transformations

Mr Fiennes was appointed at Holkham in 2018, taking on the responsibility for its farmland conservation as well its internationally-important National Nature Reserve - which welcomes thousands of wintering geese and waders as well as being home to the largest breeding colony of spoonbills in the country. 

A key part of his strategy is the transformation of dozens of fields into wetlands, where grazing by beef cattle is carefully timed to manage the habitats for ground-nesting birds.

On some former arable land, including those visible from the busy coastal car park at Lady Anne's Drive, dry fields have been recreated into thriving wetlands, building bunds on old drainage channels and installing simple mechanisms to control the water, along with existing sluices.

A rotary ditcher at work on the Holkham National Nature Reserve

A rotary ditcher at work on the Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Jake Fiennes

And on a wider scale, a Defra grant for "farming in protected landscapes" paid for a rotary ditcher which has excavated shallow channels in the soil along a 50km stretch of coastline from Cley next the Sea to Wild Ken Hill in west Norfolk. 

"Many years ago, the old Norfolk boys would dig foot-drains to take the water off the land," said Mr Fiennes.

"This is 21st-century digging of foot-drains, but this time I am doing it because I want water."

A lapwing on the Holkham National Nature Reserve

A lapwing on the Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Andy Bloomfield

Key Species: Lapwing

The success of these efforts can be seen in the recovery of key wetland "indicator" species like the lapwing.

This familiar farmland bird has suffered significant declines and is now a Red List species.

But at Holkham, where it had been declining steadily since 2005, its population has risen dramatically in the last three breeding seasons, from 140 breeding pairs in 2018, up to 260 in 2021.

"In just three breeding seasons we have brought Holkham's coastal population of breeding lapwings back to what they were 20 years ago," said Mr Fiennes.

He said this proved the value of restoring wetlands - and the crucial importance of data-collection and monitoring

"My deep frustration with all of this, in conversations I have been having over the last few months, is that no-one records what they do," he said.

"They [farmers] all go into an environment scheme, but they didn't know where Year One was, the baseline. We need to track what we do and why we do it. 

"For example we've been doing the Big Farmland Bird Survey in the last two weeks and we now have four years of data for Holkham. We have surveyed close to 50 farms of Holkham-owned land and already we can see where we are making a difference and where we are not."

A spoonbill on the Holkham National Nature Reserve

A spoonbill on the Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Andy Bloomfield

Career Background

Mr Fiennes had a hectic childhood, living in Wiltshire, Dorset, Ireland, London and Suffolk, and attending 13 different schools.

His father, a former tenant farmer, was an architectural photographer, and his five siblings include Hollywood actors Ralph and Joseph.

After leaving school at 16 he briefly went to London, "but it didn't work out for me, so I called a friend of mine up who had just inherited 3,500 acres in Sussex".

After three years farming in Sussex, he also spent some time in Australia before becoming a gamekeeper on a pheasant shoot in Wales.

But he settled in Norfolk after a friend of his father's put him in contact with Sir Nicholas Bacon at the Raveningham Estate.

He joined as a gamekeeper in 1995, and had risen to the position of estate manager when he left 24 years later to join the Holkham estate.

Pink-footed geese at the Holkham National Nature Reserve

Pink-footed geese at the Holkham National Nature Reserve - Credit: Jake Fiennes