What is Landscape Recovery?

One of three new environmental land management schemes being piloted across England from 2022. The aim of Landscape Recovery is to enhance our natural environment and support ecosystem recovery through long-term, large-scale, land-use change and habitat restoration projects. These projects have initially focussed on either recovering and restoring England’s threatened native species or restoring England’s streams and rivers by improving water quality, biodiversity and adapting to climate change. The premise for large scale (500 – 5,000 hectare areas) acknowledges that nature doesn’t operate to farm boundaries.

Who is involved in the project?

The partnership incorporates 23 farms in an almost completely contiguous land area. The 2,010 hectare Upper Axe Landscape Recovery Project follows the River Axe from Clapton to Chard Junction, Somerset, and encompasses both the mainstream and the entirety of one of the main tributaries, the Synderford, plus the streams arising from both Cricket St Thomas and Hewood. In total we are made up of 5 dairy farms, 6 beef farms and 5 farms renting pasture for dairy farms, 3 sheep farms with a total of 1,500 ewes, 2 farms with small-scale pig operations, 2 arable (1 of which feeds 2 anaerobic digesters which supply energy to 2,500-3,000 local homes), 1 fruit farm and a social hedging enterprise and a goat farm of 2,500 goats supplying 10% of the UK’s goat milk and also a previous winner of dairy farm of the year. It is the multitude of skills and expertise within this group that will drive this project.

What is the Upper Axe Community Interest Company?

The Upper Axe Landscape Partnership CIC (“the CIC”) has been formed specifically to coordinate the partnership

Advising the Community Interest Company we have a combination of ecologists, geomorphologists, farm plan specialists, project managers, veterinarians, investment consultants and environmental education & care farming providers and horticulturists, and separately a Steering Group. We have enlisted both FAWG (Farming and Wildlife Group) who piloted farm management plans as part of their Triple Axe project, Ecologic (terrestrial and marine ecologists), The Environment Agency, Natural England, The Ave Vale Rivers Association, The Westcountry Rivers Trust, Ecorys UK, Eunomia, Research and Consulting, Sue Belgrave, Defra and the Magdalen Environmental Trust.

The Core team is comprised of –

Giles Aspinall, as CEO of the Magdalen Environmental Trust, has worked at the Magdalen (which is one of the project landowning partners) for 14 years, focusing on environmental education, Care Farming and nature conservation on site. Having co-wrote the application to Defra that kicked off Landscape Recovery in the Axe valley, Giles now supports both the project manager and the wider team from the comfort of his office chair! Whilst loving living and working in the project area, Giles is excited about the vision of an even more amazing Axe catchment in the future.

Poppy Johnson has recently joined the team as Landscape Recovery Manager.

George Greenshields – Farm advisor and ecologist – George farms Red Devon cattle within the Axe catchment, and alongside Giles recruited the 23 farmers into the project. A founder member of Ecologic in 2011 George holds Natural England licences for Great Crested Newt, Bats and Dormouse. George’s main area of expertise is in habitat management and creation, with particular reference to the farmed environment. He is a specialist in conservation grazing, Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship.

Alongside Poppy, Giles and George we have Sabine McEwan of Farm & Wildlife Advisory Group (FAWG) leading a team developing bespoke farm management plans focusing on the participatory farms’ future economic and environmental resilience. These plans have been developed as a lead on from FWAGs existing work on the Triple Axe Project (https://blackdownhillsaonb.org.uk/project/triple-axe-project/) Sabine holds a PhD in the effects of different grassland management on soil and water quality completed with the University of Exeter and North Wyke (Rothamsted Research).

Erin Reardon is leading the Ecologic team of ecologists during the 2 year development phase of the project – Erin holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and is liasing between the Upper Axe team and FAWG UK.

Julian Payne is the Area Geomorphology Advisor for the Environment Agency. He advises on river processes by considering their physical condition, the influence this has on their ecology, and the interactions between rivers and floodplains, their management and the wider catchment land use. He has worked in this role since 2012, with experience working with rivers and coastal environments across the country for almost 30 years. He was involved with the writing and publication of the 2019 River Axe SSSI River Restoration Plan, and has supported the conception and development of the Upper Axe Landscape Recovery. He is passionate about engaging communities with the rivers that flow through them, and in protecting these environments for the wildlife that they have been able to support in the past. Supporting this project is crucial for securing a healthy future for the River Axe and for the communities that live within its landscape.

Supporting the team is Alex Swan of the Environment Agency -(BSc (Hons) with a MSc – in Environmental Policy) who is the East Devon Catchment Coordinator as well as the Project Liason Officer for the 2 Landscape Recovery projects in East Devon.

We are working closely alongside Axe Vale Rivers Association (AVRA) and Mike Kent and Eddie de Vere who are aiding us bringing together the combined interests of the local community, landowners, farmers, river users and anglers. Their aim is to restore the Axe and its catchment to its former status as one of the very best fish and wildlife habitats in the United Kingdom. This is done via a concerted programme of engaging with local schools, collaborating with farmers and landowners and coordinating with regional and national agencies and strategic fund-raising

What does the project aim to achieve?

We envision that, in 20 years’ time, the River Axe will interact more characteristically with its floodplain to provide clean water, rich wildlife habitats, flood and drought mitigation and enhanced opportunities for people to access nature. The project operates to nature’s timescale – 22 years minimum and aims to unite farmers and landowners in a combined strategy for land use, habitat creation and river restoration. It will make generational changes to both drive economic and environmental resilience within the farms whilst also significantly improving the local environment in and around the Axe with adjoining farmland managed in a way which supports, enhances and connects these core riparian habitats and provide food production, carbon sequestration and important terrestrial habitats. Improvements will be seen in water quality and the surrounding river corridor.  As a result, people and wildlife will flourish, living in a nature-rich, resilient landscape that sustains viable enterprises and the wellbeing and livelihoods of our communities.

Our objectives are to:

  • Restore natural function to the river and tributaries throughout the Primary Area totalling 506ha.
  • Restore spawning gravels in the Upper River Axe
  • Reduce diffuse pollution entering the river system by 50%, targeting phosphates and suspended sediments originating from farming activities and sediments released directly from excessive channel erosion across 2010 ha (our Total Project Area).
  • Create bespoke farm management plans which both future proof the farm businesses and allow them to farm in an environmentally sensitive but resilient manner

Within the river corridor of the project a restored River Axe will have a channel and floodplain that is morphologically dynamic, a river ecosystem whose flora and fauna is biodiverse, with non-native species being actively controlled. Wildlife passages within the channel are to be created, with the appropriate alteration or removal of artificial modifications such as weirs, bridges and revetments, and improved overall water quality.

The river has suffered from a reduction in tree cover due to a combination of erosion, alder disease and poor regeneration due to grazing pressure. The associated loss of large woody debris within the channel has effects upon water velocity and habitat creation within the channel. Grazing along the banks by ruminants also contribute to soil erosion and fine sediment deposition within the channel, with knock on effects to water flow within the channel and the composition and abundance of aquatic species within it. A substantial tree planting scheme, creation of river channel works for example a network of leaky dams, and establishing controlled grazing along the river corridor will all contribute to a successful river ecosystem outcome. Whilst there are many river specific measures whether it be water quality indicators, river channel features, flood prevention and river habitat biodiversity measures to be considered, the project has aims for the wider catchment, incorporating a total of 1,500 hectares.

What are our key metrics of success?

Reduce the environmental negative impact of soil run off and nutrient leaching within the catchment, with the aim of returning the River Axe Special Area of Conservation to favourable ecological status.  

Working with farmers to develop an economic model which reduces phosphate inputs on farm whilst improving economic resilience

Understand farm nutrients journey from farm to environment and provide solutions for mitigating or slowing their progress.

Produce a plan which maintains and supports existing species rich pasture, alongside creating new biodiverse grasslands

Creating a continuous buffer along the River Axe and its tributaries

Returning the River Synderford to a favourable habitat for Brown Trout

Improve Biodiversity, carbon sequestration and ecological variety of the catchment

Create a project which neighbouring farms and landowners see great benefit in joining

Engage the community and particularly the younger generations with the River, the Environment and Farming. There is a strong will to raise awareness of both food production and our natural environment

Develop farms and landowners in preparation for the Natural Capital Market

How will the project be funded?

The River Axe faces a number of ecological challenges. As a Special Area of Conservation, the Axe catchment is a priority area for water quality improvement and nutrient neutrality. It is therefore timely and crucial that the CIC is focused on restoration and regeneration of a nationally significant river system. Delivering this project over a minimum of 20 years requires an understanding of how best to generate investment from different sources into nature-based solutions

Nature Capital Further Information