More than 100 academics, experts and public figures have signed a letter calling on the royal family to rewild their lands as a public commitment to help tackle Britain’s biodiversity crisis and to show climate leadership.
Organised by the rewilding campaign group Wild Card, the letter’s 120 signatories include the broadcasters Chris Packham, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani as well as the leading environmental scientist Prof Sir Robert Watson.
The letter, addressed to the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, urges them to prioritise biodiversity in their land management and allow for the restoration of ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, heathlands, swamps and rivers – both as vital wildlife habitats and important carbon sinks.
“You have a unique and historic opportunity to radically address the degraded state of nature on these islands,” the letter reads. It points out the longstanding public commitment to climate and environment by Prince Charles and, more recently, Prince William, who last year launched the Earthshot prize, offering GBP50m to support climate solutions.
“An act of rewilding from the royal family would be of massive cultural significance,” said Joel Scott-Halkes, a co-founder of Wild Card, “and would show the royal family is prepared to put climate commitments into action.”
The royal family is the biggest landowning family in the UK. Their estate includes lands held by the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall as well as the Queen’s personal estate, including Balmoral in Aberdeenshire and Sandringham in Norfolk. By one calculation that includes the crown estate, which is, officially owned but not controlled by the Queen, the royal family owns 1.4% of England.
The huge extent of land held by one family reveals the inequality of land ownership in the UK, said Scott-Halkes. Half of the country is owned by less than 1% of the population.
But it also presents an opportunity to effect big changes by targeting just one landowner, said Dr Alexander Lees, a senior lecturer in biodiversity at Manchester Metropolitan University and a signatory to the letter. The royal family “could be leading on restoration and rewilding at landscape scales,” he said, “rather than being seen to be dragging their feet”. At present, for example, the Duchy of Cornwall has only 6% tree coverage versus the 13% of the UK (the EU average is 38%).
The campaign wants the royal family to focus first on degraded land that has very little biodiversity, said Scott-Halkes.
Balmoral, owned by the Queen, is about 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) – almost twice the size of Manchester. Much of the land is used for deer stalking and consists of intensively managed grouse moor. “There’d be massive biodiversity gains if you rewilded it,” said Scott-Halkes.
Dartmoor, where the Duchy of Cornwall is the largest landowner, used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Only fragments remain and a lot of land is “ecologically barren”, said Scott-Halkes. “[With] a small change to that land management,” he said, “you get the rainforests back.” The campaigners have also included the Crown estate which is independently managed, because they argue that it directly benefits the royal family.
According to a UN report published in June, the world needs to rewild at least 1bn hectares (2.47bn acres), an area the size of China, by 2030 to meet its climate and nature commitments.
Despite the UK government’s claims to be protecting about 28% of land, a 2020 report from the conservation charity RSPB suggested that in reality as little as 5% of land is being effectively managed for nature. The report found that the UK had failed to reach 17 of 20 UN biodiversity targets, calling the last 10 years a “lost decade for nature“.
Despite some success protecting individual species, the overall trajectory for UK biodiversity is not positive. Since 1970, populations of the country’s most important wildlife have declined by an average of 60% and around one quarter of native mammals are at risk of extinction.
For big landowners, said Scott-Halkes, there is a “moral responsibility” to act. Wild Card, which also plans to target the Church of England and the Oxbridge universities, says the ultimate aim is to see 50% of the UK rewilded.
The hope is that a first commitment from the royal family will spur other large landowners to prioritise nature. A pledge to “support the return of lost wildlife to their lands could quite literally change the course of natural history in our country,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall, “and play a massive part in counteracting the alarming loss of biodiversity and the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”
A spokesperson for the royal estates told the Guardian: “As the letter states, members of the royal family have a longstanding commitment to conservation and biodiversity, and for over 50 years have championed the preservation and development of natural ecosystems.
“The royal estates are constantly evolving and looking for new ways to continue improving conservation, biodiversity and public access to green spaces, as well as being home to thriving communities and businesses which form part of the fabric of the local community.”