Isabella Tree’s book Wilding (2018) is one of the great books of nature writing. It had me spellbound from start to finish.
First, there was the great adventure of giving nature its head in a marginal farm at Knepp in Sussex, inspired by similar experiments in Netherlands, with the removal of fencing and the introduction of cattle, pigs and ponies. Remarkably the land soon reverted to a mixed landscape of trees, scrub and grassland. Biodiversity increased incredibly. Almost extinct species came back to life and thrived. It’s a story to warm the heart of anyone with a feeling for the natural world.
Of course there was opposition from conventional farming and a view of what the countryside ‘should’ look like, which simply goes back to around the 1800s. Part of the story is how these obstacles were co-opted or overcome. The thing is, the experiment was clearly a huge success from a biodiversity perspective and will surely provide a model for many others.
There are within this book many insights into the history of farming, and why things are as they are. For example the Victorians first created the deep ploughing tools that enabled the draining of marginal farmland and the production of crops. But there has been a price to pay. Along with corresponding ‘improvement’ of water courses to transmit water as quickly as possible, and the widespread use of sheep grazing and grouse management in uplands, this has created the environment where the flooding that we see today after heavy rains becomes inevitable. Left to itself, nature slows and tames the waters, and it can learn to do so again.
Really inspiring are the stories of the return and thriving of nightingales, purple emperors, turtle doves, water voles, hares and others.
And finally, there is the story of the soil, how soil health has improved, different sorts of earthworms thrive, and how approaches such as that taken at Knepp could play a major role in helping to reverse the increase of carbon dioxide that threatens human societies the world over.
They can also help us to get back in touch with nature and our souls, from which the mad money/technological dream has been increasingly distancing us.
Yes, read it.
And you can now go on safari at the Knepp estate.
Featured image shows longhorn cattle grazing wild at the Knepp estate,
from the Knepp website.