by Isabella Tree
Setting: England
Genres: Nonfiction
Published on September 17, 2019
Pages: 392
Format: Paperback Source: Library

An inspiring story about what happens when 3,500 acres of land, farmed for centuries, is left to return to the wild, and about the wilder, richer future a natural landscape can bring.

For years Charlie Burrell and his wife, Isabella Tree, farmed Knepp Castle Estate and struggled to turn a profit. By 2000, with the farm facing bankruptcy, they decided to try something radical. They would restore Knepp’s 3,500 acres to the wild. Using herds of free-roaming animals to mimic the actions of the megafauna of the past, they hoped to bring nature back to their depleted land. But what would the neighbors say, in the manicured countryside of modern England where a blade of grass out of place is considered an affront?

In the face of considerable opposition the couple persisted with their experiment and soon witnessed an extraordinary change. New life flooded into Knepp, now a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species like turtle doves, peregrine falcons, and purple emperor butterflies.

The fabled English nightingale sings again.

At a time of looming environmental disaster, Wilding is an inspiring story of a farm, a couple, and a community transformed. Isabella Tree’s wonderful book brings together science, natural history, a fair bit of drama, and—ultimately—hope.

As a result of the shortages of food during World War II, British landowners were encouraged to produce as much food as possible. Every inch of land that could be put towards food production was to be used that way as part of your patriotic duty. This mindset was several generations old when the owners of Knepp Castle realized that they were going to go bankrupt if they kept farming.

Their land wasn’t suited for it. It was heavy clay. Industrial agricultural techniques were wrestling crops from the ground but it was hard. It was a money-losing proposition no matter how much they innovated. Stopping farming made them very unpopular. Deciding to let their land go back to a natural state made them pariahs.

I’m American so I don’t understand a lot of the attitudes and laws and government agencies at play in this book. Having to get permission to not farm land you own is a weird concept for me. This is a 3500 acre area so it isn’t like they are letting a yard in the suburbs go wild. Around here, I don’t think letting farmland go back to nature would be that big of a deal. In fact, I can think of an area in the national park near me that was a dairy farm and then a golf course that is currently being allowed to rewild. People really like it. So it was strange to me to read about walkers being angry about seeing unmaintained land on their walks.

One of the major lessons learned is that many animals will live in areas that were not previously expected. It may be that animals that we think live only in the woods might prefer scrub or other environments. They live in the woods because their preferred environment doesn’t exist now. When it is offered, they will expand their ranges. That is what is being seen at Knepp.

One of the major things they did was introduce large herbivores to see their effect on the environment. Everyone gets taught that cleared land eventually reverts back to forest. But grazing animals will keep land open. In different sections of their land they have deer, cows, and Exmoor ponies. They also have pigs.

This isn’t an entirely natural arrangement. The area is fenced so the animals can’t roam. Obviously they will then breed and without natural predators will get too numerous for their environment if they can’t spread out. They didn’t really seem to think that through. They wanted to be all natural and hands off. They wanted to let the animals just live as wild herds but it isn’t a wild situation. So they have started culling the herds and butchering the animals. The author is all upset that she had to geld the Exmoor pony stallions to stop having foals instead of eating them too. I don’t approve of eating any animals but I didn’t really expect to see someone actually, honestly wish that someday she would be able to make homemade “pony charcuterie”. (I kid you not, she used that phrase. If I had to see that, now you have to too.) If I had populate an area with large herbivores for grazing purposes, I’d go more of a farm sanctuary route where I’d take in donkeys or cows or the species I needed and let them live their lives without trying to breed a herd of my own or eat them.

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Speaking of a bit tone deaf, she talked about her husband liking the idea of having an estate that is going back to nature and has large herbivores because it reminded him of the good ole days when he was a boy. You know, when he was a boy in Africa on the family farm before they were sadly forced to leave. Very “isn’t it so sad that we aren’t colonizers anymore” vibes. Seriously, where was your editor?

They have also learned about water retention. A small river ran through the land. The Victorians turned it into a canal. It was prone to flooding. They tore down the canal walls, let it meander, and decreased the amount of flooding downstream. They want to work with beavers to do more flood management. (I think since this book was written they have brought beavers into the area.)

Even if you don’t have land on this scale you can get some ideas of things to do in your area. One of the big things they discovered is that scrub land is very important. Overly manicuring everything deprives animals of cover and food sources in the winter. Decaying branches form their own ecosystems and return nutrients to the trees they came from. As I write this all my neighbors are putting their leaves on the street for the city to pick up. At least they get made into compost here and they aren’t bagged up in plastic but I am able to pile them with fallen branches on the edges of our yard. Over the winter they will break down for our own compost plus the deer love to eat them.

Overall this book was a great look at what happens with 15 years of rewilding of a large area. They also highlight other projects in Europe. It gives you hope to read about people finally learning to work with their environment instead of against it – even if you can’t have a nice pony charcuterie while you read.