Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm

Faced with the uncomfortable truth that all our efforts over the past fifteen years had come to nothing, we were desperately searching for alternatives to the current regime of intensive farming.”

Isabella Tree, Wilding, At Odds with Everything

The opening pages of Wilding illustrate to the reader in no uncertain terms the decline and deterioration of nature in Britain. This sledgehammer blow of facts is a short, sharp shock that dispels any illusion we may have that all is well in our green and pleasant land. The plight of the Turtle Dove is the most pertinent example given by Isabella Tree, author and co-owner of the Knepp estate in Sussex. From the first page, we are immediately transported to Knepp, amongst the undergrowth, silently straining to see or hear a sign of one of this Island’s most threatened birds. How our author and her husband, Charles Burrell reached this moment is the very heart of the book, the small story set amongst a larger tale of nature’s struggle to survive in modern Britain.

Despite this harrowing beginning, the book is without a doubt an optimistic one. This tone is driven by the proactive and passionate work and words of our author. We are transported back to 1999 when the first seeds of “rewilding” are sown at Knepp. Amid severe financial difficulties that would ultimately see an end to the arable and dairy farming on the Knepp estate, we meet Ted Green. His expertise focuses in on a single dying Oak tree. The benefits – both seen and unseen to the tree’s environment, of letting it remain standing are presented to us. It is the first of many moments in the book when an established farming practice is challenged to the benefit of regenerating the land.

When the realisation that the farm can no longer continue comes, it is not seen as a defeat, rather a liberation. The land had been in Charles Burrell’s family since 1787, but with commendable enthusiasm, our protagonists throw themselves into finding a viable and progressive use for their land rather than selling up. The subsequent process of selling all farming equipment, in addition to their large amount of livestock is the beginning of their journey.

Working with the land, rather than against it is the counter-intuitive mantra that our now former farmers begin to live by. This is without a doubt a book about nature, but the behind the scenes lobbying and negotiations for funding with organisations such as Natural England are fascinating. Through the medium of these negotiations, we are shown that despite being a nation of avid nature lovers, Britain is incredibly hesitant in partaking in new and innovative conservation strategies. To the book’s great credit, we are never bogged down in these details. The quest to secure funding for their project is shown to be a greater struggle than the natural process of “rewilding” itself.

“We did not seem to have a word for a long term, minimal intervention, natural process-led area. When Rewilding came as a word it was a relief…”

Charles Burrell speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference 2019

The term “Rewilding” is one that is debated throughout the book and proves difficult to classify. The end of intensive farming on the estate allows a re-awakening of life. The three and a half thousand acres at Knepp are given back to nature. The three blocks on the estate, the Northern, Middle and Southern are treated with different approaches and varying levels of intervention. For example, the Northern Block’s soil was resewn with natural grasses, and consequently, the process of rewilding has been slow, with scrub emerging at a pedestrian pace. The Middle Block, in which stands Repton Park is described as more of a cultural landscape. Again, intervention is minimal. Cattle and Exmoor Ponies are amongst the animals introduced, but the area has maintained an appearance more in keeping with traditional views of what British countryside ‘should’ look like. This is largely due to public rights of way and footpaths needing to be maintained. The Southern Block was left to its own devices, before a variety of grazing animals such as Longhorn Cattle, Tamworth Pigs and Fallow Deer were introduced. This area has returned to its natural state at a greater pace than the other blocks.

Throughout all three of the estate’s blocks levels of flora and fauna are booming. Chapter by chapter, Tree guides us through the cause and consequence of nature’s return, from keystone species such as the Tamworth Pigs (chosen to replicate Wild Boar) to the unseen fungi mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are defined by Tree as “fine, hair-like filaments of fungus that attach themselves to the (tree) roots and create a deep, intricate and vast underground networks’.The halting of intensively farming and fertilising the land allowed this natural communication network between trees and plants to be resuscitated. Without a doubt the books greatest strength is displaying to the reader the resurgence of nature. No matter how large the animal driving natural regeneration or how small the fungi or bacteria enlivening the soil that had been fertilised into submission, the reader leaves with a huge appreciation of nature thriving as one, whole ecosystem.

The ground-breaking and often controversial Oostvaardersplassen Project in the Netherlands is an example of rewilding at its most extreme. It serves as an inspiration to the Knepp project from early on in the rewilding procedure. The land given over to the project is largely reclaimed from the sea and is notable given its proximity to Amsterdam. This wetland and woodland habitat have attracted a huge amount of nature, and also criticism. The non-intervention policy of the project nearly buckled under public pressure when animals such as horses were seen starving during the winter. Dutch ecologist and pioneer of the project, Frans Vera is brought on-board by the author to serve as a consultant on the Knepp Project. The controversies surrounding these projects are dealt with even-handedly, with both sides of the debate put forward. Ultimately the non-intervention tactics employed by both these projects are concluded to be necessary, with humanities desire to intervene and order nature dissected from its largely Victorian origins to the present day. Vera advocates non-intervention as something that must be done without compromise for the natural process to develop as organically as possible.

We are a nation of control freaks, how can we learn to live with messy, chaotic, unpredictable nature? It’s a question of, can we learn to re-wild ourselves?’

Isabella Tree speaking to Pan Macmillan Publishers.

As rewilding begins to take hold of the land and nature’s visible presence increases, so does opposition to the project. The clash with the intentions of rewilding comes in two forms. Firstly, we see academic opposition. The closed canopy theory, the oft-spoken idea that pre-human Britain was once a densely wooded landscape from Land’s End to John o’ Groats comes in to question. It is suggested that the theory may have been responsible for the difficulties in gaining funding early on for Knepp. This theory has been entrenched in academia for decades and challenges the landscape at Knepp, which is largely wood pasture. The theory is examined and scrutinised expertly by Tree, and the reader is inclined to conclude that through landscape drivers such as grazing animals, the landscape at Knepp is a more realistic return to the past than woodland as far as the eye can see. However, it is made clear that the project is not a deliberate return to the past or a rebellion against the neat and ordered countryside we are all familiar with. It is simply nature unleashed in a controlled area and allowed to thrive.

The question of what the countryside ‘should’ look like and ‘should’ be used for is a thorny issue our protagonists are challenged over. Neighbouring farmers and landowners initially opposed the project, believing it to be a waste of land that is fit for food production. The origins of these viewpoints are dissected; from the dig-to-victory drive of World War Two to the inherent beliefs of the Green Revolution generation. Tree reveals that worldwide agriculture currently produces enough food to feed over ten million people. Issues of food wastage due to, amongst other factors, supermarket standards are shown to be a huge concern. Technology allows a greater crop yield from farmland than ever before. Consequently, more land can be given back to nature, in order to strengthen and rebuild damaged ecosystems.

‘Compared with conventional conservation, (rewilding) is manifestly inexpensive. It also provides much of what we need and what our landscape is currently lacking: bio-diversity, resilience against climate change and extreme weather…and it can still produce high-quality food, like pasture-fed meat.’

Isabella Tree, Wilding, The Value of Nature

The final chapter of Wilding is a perfect conclusion to the book. The benefits of rewilding are presented clearly and concisely, a wonderful summing up of the previous chapters. Every aspect of modern life is shown to have potential gains from an increase in rewilding projects in Britain. From a monetary viewpoint, there would be numerous advantages. However, on a more fundamental level, the book is an inspiration to those who believe the decline of nature is irreversible. The extinguishing of life in our countryside would be a tragedy, and Tree provides us with hundreds of reasons why this should not be the case. Grounded in sound scientific theory, and infused with common-sense practices, we are shown that from the largest estate to the smallest garden lawn, nature wants to return, to thrive, it just has to be given a fighting chance.

Pride in the countryside is a part of our nation’s heritage. It is something we should be proud of, something that connects us with past generations, and offers solace when confronted with an uncertain future. But our green and pleasant land is becoming a facade, no more than a green desert, barren of life, with small and isolated islands of resistance in the form of nature reserves. We are delusional in regards to its long term future and in denying its continuing decline. Rewilding may initially seem a radical response. Wilding shows us it is not only the most progressive form of conservation, but is also the most economically viable approach. A watchful eye and a guiding hand is all that is required, rather than full-scale intervention. Rewilding does not discriminate, every species from the largest mammal, the most colourful butterfly to the smallest plant benefits.

Knepp was a lowland farm on the heavy clay of the Low Weald in Sussex. It was intensively farmed for generations. Located in an area is sandwiched between large metropolitan districts such as Brighton and Greater London, and on the doorstep of the South Downs National Park. It is now a haven to nature. It is a monumental achievement, and the book was an absolute pleasure to read. I am now eager to visit the site at Knepp myself, and see what an example to the rest of the country this at times accidental, but hugely impressive project has set.

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