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‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree (Picadore 2018)

Wilding is the story of the conversion of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex from intensive agricultural to an extensive wildlife refuge. It is a beautifully written account charting the reclamation of the heavy Weald clays by nature; a living demonstration of how nature can still bounce back from the assaults of industrial society and recreate a rich and diverse landscape. The author mixes evocative descriptions of returning nature with statistics, the occasional rant and short biographical stories.

Wilding by Isabella Tree

The Knepp estate had been variously managed as a game reserve, Barons playground and agricultural enterprise for at least 1000 years. The needs for food self sufficiency in the second world war brought much of the land under the plough and post war agricultural policy led to the progressive intensification farming. By the start of the new millennium, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell were locked in the cycle of increasing capital inputs to raise output to meet rising costs in the face of falling revenues. By 2000 they faced the prospect of taking on more debt or going bust.

Meeting an old woodsman under one of Knepp’s ancient oaks triggered a rethink of their relationship with their land. The old oak was dying, not of old age, but of modern farming practices. Soil was compacted under the weight of machinery and pesticides were killing the soil organisms that underpinned the oak’s health. Abandoning the family tradition of farming was no easy decision, but the new EU initiated Countryside Stewardship fund offered an alternative management plan.

Simply letting go and leaving land alone was not enough to bring the vibrancy of nature back. Nature is a balanced and complex web of interactions and much of this web has been lost. Within the web there are a few keystone species that have a disproportionate influence; among these, the Burrells were to learn from rewilding experiments in the Netherlands, were large grazers. Over several years they introduced fallow deer, longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and crucially Tamworth pigs, all allowed to roam free.

These reintroductions had a dramatic effect through selective browsing and the disturbance of the compacted soils particularly by the pig that allowed a much richer mix of wild plants to become established. Most crucially the health of the soil began to improve as soil life, freed from the regular applications of pesticides and fertilisers, was able to rebuild the soil structure. Insects followed so building the base of the food chains that vertebrates require.

With overall biodiversity increasing many endangered species found refuge at Knepp. Here is the UK’s only increasing population of nightingales, the turtle dove is making a desperate comeback as are skylarks, the red backed shrike and lesser redpoll. Knepp is home to 13 out of the 17 British bat species; among the 60 insect species of conservation importance breeding on the estate are the rare purple emperor and silver winged fritillary butterflies.

Rewilding has been a challenge to many including local farmers, residents, Government advisers and even conservationists. Farmers and local people were horrified at the neglect of the once model Knepp estate, seeing the reversion of farmland to scrub as abandonment. Neat managed farmed landscape was the way things should be, man in proper control of nature. Rewilding was nature gaining the upper hand, falling out of our control. There was fear of change and of losing control and with fear came abuse that the Burrels had to face down.

Official agencies and the conservationists also found the Knepp experiment a challenge. Traditional conservation is targeted at key species, it is their welfare that guides the management of the habitats. But rewilding is a process with nature in control, species come and go as the landscape changes. Traditional conservation locks a landscape into a stasis that is alien to ecological processes. Rewilding returns dynamism and therefore change to the landscape.

Can the Knepp experiment be replicated elsewhere? For rewilding to become a part of a national conservation strategy it has to overcome some significant obstacles that are detailed in this book, not the least of which is economic. But the real value of land and nature is far more than its monetary value.

Society benefits from a wide range of ecosystems services, many of which go unrecognised, until that is, they are no longer provided. New economic thinking is needed to reward landowners for maximising the ecosystem services of their land. The Climate Crisis brings urgency to the need to value nature within the economy.

Isabella Tree admits that if their farm enterprise had remained profitable they would not have become champions for rewilding. Having now witnessed the renaissance of nature around them they want others to be able to share the joy of seeing nature express herself.

We, like the old oak where it all started, are becoming cut off from our roots at considerable cost to our wellbeing. Rewilding requires a change of attitude, to see nature not as something threatening to be tamed and bent to our will, but as our partner with which we can work for mutual benefit ‘Wilding’ shows that nature can still play her part in this partnership. Can we?

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