In the US, it is known as "re-wilding" -- the transformation of cultivated land into nature reserves and the reintroduction of vanished native species. Now British conservationists are taking notice, and moves to purchase bigger swaths of the landscape are gathering pace.
On Manor Farm, near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, western England, the last pheasant will soon be bagged and fields of winter wheat and spring barley will revert to chalk downs. An appeal by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to raise US$4.3 million to transform the land will, if successful, result in much of its 295 hectares being seeded with wildflowers to encourage stone curlews and orchids.
"This season will be the last shoot," farm manager Brian Eley said.
The enthusiasm for conservancy schemes is being financed by mass-membership organizations and grants from the British national lottery and other funding bodies. Meanwhile, the decline in agricultural subsidies for food production and pressure to lower international trade barriers have accelerated the abandonment of marginal farmland.
Private reserves established by people quitting city life have added to the accumulation of wildlife sanctuaries. The metamorphosis is becoming increasingly visible as nature charities buy land next to reserves in the belief that larger uncultivated tracts generate greater biodiversity. The clustering is most visible in places such as the Purbeck peninsula in Dorset, on England's south coast, where tended fields are becoming heath and moorland.
Overall, reserves probably account for no more than 1 percent of England's land surface, but figures compiled by the Guardian reveal the movement is gathering pace. The number of national nature reserves declared by the British government agency English Nature has risen rapidly from 164 sites in 1995 to 202 in 2000 and 217 today. They now cover 87,000 hectares.
The 47 local county wildlife trusts have extended their own reserves from 55,000 hectares in 1994 to 82,000 this year. Their membership has also ballooned, more than doubling to 600,000, paying supporters in 10 years. The trusts' combined annual income is now US$172 million. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with more than 1 million members, has been one of the largest purchasers of land. It owns or manages 129,000 hectares, turning farmland into more diversified habitats.
Experts suggest the countryside may be divided into a smaller, intensified agricultural sector, possibly reliant on tunnels to extend the growing season, and a vastly expanded network of nature reserves. Ian Baker, chief land agent at the bird prevention society, said the process would have been faster but for the relatively high price of farmland -- on average, US$10,750 a hectare.
"We've always had an active acquisition policy," he said. "What's becoming more apparent is the extent of the expansion."
"Our instructions are to continue purchasing. Some of these deals have been helped by the heritage lottery fund. There may not be as many capital grants in the immediate future. The 2012 Olympics will take a lot of the money," he said.
This year the Wilderness Foundation, the charity founded by Laurens van der Post, announced a proposal to gradually replace 800,000 hectares of traditional farmland with reserves, possibly inhabited by vanished species such as elk, moose, beaver and wild horse.