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Investing in Natural Capital

Virgin Money Support the World’s First Carbon Negative Tree Nursery in Kirkcaldy

In 2018, Renwick Drysdale came home to the family farm in Fife, after ten years of working abroad and completing his Masters in Ecological Economics. He carried with him the memory of planting trees on the farm as a young boy, and the seeds of a vision which, with a £2.5m loan from Virgin Money’s Agri E-Fund, is rapidly growing into a stunningly successful and pioneering eco-business called Akre.

At the heart of the business is a remarkable one-acre greenhouse nursery that gives the company its name, and allows 32-year-old Renwick and his team to grow millions of new trees each year with an efficiency that makes it the first verified carbon negative facility of its kind in the world. Built on a reclaimed slag heap, the Akre nursery will produce 2.3 million tree seedlings in 2023 and over 6.4 million next year, grown from seeds gathered from the land where they will ultimately be planted. Compared with using conventional methods, the highly efficient nursery saves the equivalent of around 80,000 miles travelled by car each year.

The cutting-edge glasshouse that provides the Akre seedlings with perfect growing conditions has been designed on the principles of sustainable intensification and the circular economy, maximising the output of seedlings on the smallest possible footprint of land. Seeds are grown in a state-of-the-art passive propagation system that promotes healthier and faster root development and higher yield per plant, and the whole nursery is waste-free and operates entirely off grid on solar generated energy and recycled harvested rainwater.

Impressive as their super-sustainable nursery is, growing trees is just one branch of a wider vision that Renwick Drysdale has developed with the support of Virgin Money. The venture began as a ‘natural capital consultancy’ enabling businesses, investment funds, communities, landowners, and private investors to develop and deliver ecological restoration plans. A small but growing third arm of Akre helps customers to identify and manage opportunities for biodiversity and carbon credit trading.

“Our mission is to empower businesses and communities to help the planet,” says Renwick. “We offer the knowledge, networks and tools that allow clients to understand the full potential of natural capital and make the transition from an extractive to a regenerative business model. Our whole approach is geared to making it as easy and productive as possible for clients to enhance habitats, purify air, mitigate climate change, and dramatically reduce their environmental impact.”

For Virgin Money Head of Agriculture, Brian Richardson, Renwick Drysdale and his family represent the perfect combination of traditional values, entrepreneurial vision, and environmental passion the bank is keen to encourage.

“We have been involved with the Drysdale family for many years, supporting their investment in their farm and other business enterprises, so we were delighted to be able to support Renwick when he needed to repay the original investors in this fascinating venture. My colleague, Colin Milne, was visiting the Akre site post build and recognised that this was a perfect candidate for our Agri E-Fund, which meant that we could provide a loan without the cost of an arrangement fee.”

Trees play the significant role at Akre and growing them currently accounts for about 30% of the operations. In terms of turnover, the aim is to have an even split between consultancy and trees. Although their consultancy work extends around the world, most of Akre’s current work is being delivered in Scotland. For one project on behalf of global investment company abrdn, Akre not only helped acquire the 1400 hectares of hill ground, but the team also designed and manages the project, which will be 50% native woodland, using 1.2 million trees along with some peatland restoration and natural regeneration.

The company is also working on a 150-hectare natural woodland creation near Stirling, on behalf of a private investor. These projects will absorb some of the native species of oak and ash, Scots pine, silver birch, wild cherry, rowan, and alder that make up more than 98% of the Akre nursery output, but by 2025 the Kirkcaldy nursery is expected to be producing 7 million new trees a year to supply the growing demand for woodland regeneration and reforestation.

Renwick Drysdale and Akre will be leading the charge to achieve the UK Government’s ambitious targets for tomorrow’s trees. Right now, the world is falling woefully short.

“To sequester carbon and mitigate climate change we need to plant one trillion trees around the world by 2050, and to achieve this we would have to have in the region of 720 sites producing 30 million trees a year. Here in Scotland the target is 15,000 hectares a year, and last year we achieved 8,500. There are thousands of acres of land across Scotland that are ideal for planting and growing trees, and we are doing our best to offer businesses, landowners, and farmers an easy and exceptionally eco-friendly method of investing in natural capital.”

For Renwick Drysdale, working with a familiar bank made the financial complexities of investing in and growing a new business straightforward. “We needed to raise a substantial loan and invest in new technology to take us to the next level, and dealing with Colin Milne and his team at Virgin Money made it so much easier. We needed a bank which understood investment in rural businesses but also understood the enormous potential of the environmental opportunities we are tapping into at Akre.

“They have been extremely helpful in steering us through the unexpected strains of rising inflation and interest rates over the past year or so. We have developed a great relationship with Virgin Money, we know they understand farming and rural business, and the bank is deeply committed to supporting the drive to carbon reduction and biodiversity. They are the ideal partner.”

Brian Richardson is certain Virgin Money is backing a winner in Renwick Drysdale. “More and more businesses are looking to invest in natural capital, and Government farming policy in the UK is prioritising the environmental agenda too. Many investors don’t know how to go about developing business strategies to achieve this goal, and Akre is perfectly positioned to help. This is a young business, and Renwick and his team are rapidly and deservedly building a reputation that’s spreading by word of mouth far beyond Scotland. They have the people, the expertise, the ambition – and of course the trees – to make it a huge success.