I have just finished reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree; I don’t read much non-fiction but I loved it.
It is a well-told story of how she and her husband conceded defeat on making their 3,500 acre farm profitable on marginal agricultural land in Sussex and, instead, allowed nature to take over. They followed some examples of similar projects in Holland by allowing natural scrub and vegetation to take over the ploughed fields and by introducing some wild herbivore animals – longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer. Then, over a period of 20 years, they observed how the disruption these animals introduced created drove the development of an amazingly biodiverse landscape.
The book is full of interesting facts. For example, the average earthworm has around 50 different sorts of bacteria in its gut that process toxins, waste and organic matter to improve the soil as they digest it; jays can plant over 100 acorns (an oak forest!) a day. I enjoy facts but more memorable was the account of Isabella’s emotions as previously held conventional wisdoms were upset as the project continued and the bureaucratic barriers and early local opposition was overcome. There is humour too through the ups and downs in the project; I loved the chapter on the profusion of ragwort and the passages about how the newly introduced pigs tore up previously pristine grass verges.
Several years ago, we turned our little, bland grassy paddock just beyond our garden into a building site (as the rubble from the excavation to accommodate a house extension was layered under removed, and then replaced, topsoil) and then into a meadow-cum-orchard. Since then, and particularly since retirement, I have been interested in how nature reclaims this cultivated land when cultivation and intensive grazing stops.
In the upper part of our field away from where we are blending it with our garden, we see the rapid encroachment of bramble, bullace and blackthorn around the field edges. We know that, if we leave it be without grazing animals to constrain these thorny and woody shrubs, they will expand and protect larger tree saplings. That will generate a different sort of natural biodiversity than we are moving towards.
In any case, already, the regime of scything the meadow and taking away the cut waste is delivering greater diversity of insect and plant life in the field. Even just the number of different kinds of grass has multiplied several-fold.
All that is having a positive effect on insect life in the adjacent garden and that is attracting a wider variety of birds. The voles in the field may enjoy nibbling my vegetables but the kestrel I have seen twice in the huge ash tree that overlooks the field may be suppressing their numbers.
I wish now that I had kept more formal count of wildlife varieties spotted in our field and garden over time to back up the feeling of greater diversity and the anecdotal evidence. Certainly Isabella Tree (how well named she is!) did and those statistics are wonderful. For example: male turtle dove sightings (a now desperately rare occurrence in the UK) on her Knepp estate rose steadily from zero to 20 by 2018 and by July of that year the estate was home to the largest colony (388 were counted) of rare purple emperor butterflies.
As the story of Knepp Farm unfolded so I was constantly taken aback by how fast nature recovers and a complex web of interdependence across so many species can be developed. The story brought to life how, at pace, river pollution can be reversed, flooding can be obviated, soil can be improved and species can find new homes. Towards the end of the book there was a good summary of a lot of the rewilding thinking and how this might be ported to other marginal agricultural land for our long term benefit:
‘So far in the post Brexit debate, farming and conservation have been pitted against each other as if the two must battle it out for resources. But as experience at Knepp and elsewhere has demonstrated, farming and conservation – should not – be at loggerheads. Giving over areas that are not on prime agricultural land to nature is farming’s greatest ally.
By halting and reversing land degradation, securing water resources and providing insects for crop pollination, rewilding provides services vital to the long-term sustainability of agriculture and food production. The complex mosaic of habitats stimulated by free-roaming grazing animals as we have seen on post-agricultural land at Knepp is not only remarkably easy to achieve. Compared with conventional conservation, it is manifestly inexpensive. It also provides much of what we need and what our landscape is currently lacking: biodiversity, resilience against climate change and extreme weather, and natural resources. And it can still produce high-quality food like pasture-fed meat.’
‘Wilding’ reinforced much of what I already believed to be true but added some surprising detail and emphasised how resilient nature is if we allow it to be. It’s such a positive book and I feel more hopeful having read it. I recommend it.
Postscript: Just yesterday I read an article in the Guardian about similar but more ‘guerrilla’ rewilding efforts by a farmer called Derek Gow in Devon involving voles, wild cats, beavers and storks (the last two of which are covered in Isabella’s book). I might pick up Derek Gow’s book ‘Bringing Back The Beaver’ next!