‘Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm’ is a compelling book! It reads like a cross between a novel and a natural history textbook. Isabella Tree tells the story of the Knepp estate as it evolved from a failing livestock and arable farm into a vibrant wild landscape. Her husband, Charlie (Sir Charles) Burrell, inherited the estate (which had been in the Burrell family since 1789) from his grandparents in 1987. The estate includes Knepp Castle, designed by John Nash with a park in the style of Humphry Repton and the farm that was loosing money.
Having tried to intensify the farm with the intention of making it profitable, Charlie finds that the hoped for profit doesn’t materialise and so he sells off the dairy business and puts out the arable land to contract. He manages to secure funding to restore the Repton park and introduces fallow deer. In 2002, he informes DEFRA of his intention to establish ‘a biodiverse wilderness area in the Low Weald of Sussex’. This is the beginning of the process of (re)wilding that is graphically described through its many phases throughout the book.
The story unfolds with engagingly vibrant descriptions of nature and wildlife. The advances and set backs of the project are documented in a way that engenders in the reader an emotional involvement in the unfolding story. Along the way, Tree packs in a great deal of information about the broader issues of farming and nature; the impact of (traditional and feral) grazing animals on the land and other fauna and flora; theories about the preagricultural English wilderness; the reaction of farmers and others to the land ‘being let go’ and the plethora of plants, invertebrates and small animals that start to inhabit the land after the introduction over time of ‘keystone species’ – in the case of Knepp: deer, wild ponies, pigs and longhorn cattle, all largely unrestrained and unenclosed.
The rewilding theme also allows the author to argue effectively the case against prevalent farming and countryside myths, for instance, the problems with ‘weeds’, specifically ragwort and the inevitability of using artificial mineral fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides on the land and antibiotics in livestock to effectively feed the nation.
The excitement generated by the sheer numbers of endangered and rare species that ‘take up residence’ on the estate suggests that the Knepp process should be taken up by other land owners throughout the UK to create wild life corridors, reinvigorate failing species and increase native biodiversity. This might be a way towards the ‘half wilderness’ promoted by E O Wilson.
Tree, Isabella; Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Picador, 2018