Wilding by Isabella Tree

Rewilding has been in the news this week with the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of the country to increase biodiversity. Wilding is a fantastic place to start for people wanting to understand the theory and practice of helping nature thrive.

Back in the 1980s, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited a large farm and house in Sussex. They carried on working the farm until the late 1990s but it was becoming increasingly hard. The land was marginal – it was only really half meant for agriculture. It had thick clay and was pretty hilly and part of the land around the house was protected because of its ‘look’ as parkland, which indeed it had been for generations.

The thing that got them thinking though was a visit from a specialist to look at their oak trees. He told them the oaks were suffering. The land near them was being ploughed too often and he started to explain how they were part of a much wider ecosystem that was being disrupted by the agriculture on the farm. They started to think about what the land had been like before modern agriculture and realised that actually the ‘farm’ had only been that way since the second world war when Charlie’s grandfather had ploughed it up to produce food for the war effort. Before that as they delved into the history books, much of it had been scrubland or small fields. They also discovered accounts of much wider range of species on the land than was present in the 1990s.

As they started to research how they could attempt to return some of these species they came across a project in the Netherlands that was started in the 1970s. It wasn’t ‘rewilding’ as such because the land was newly reclaimed from the sea but the group had managed to create incredible biodiversity just a half hour drive from Amsterdam airport. The secret was understanding the role of large browsing animals in moving the earth and vegetation in order to get symbiosis between different species to start. If you just ‘left’ land it would gradually revert to full canopy woodland. You need large animals to keep some of the saplings in check in order to have grasslands and meadows and all the other types of ecosystem that biodiversity needs.

Back at Knepp, they sold all the farm machinery and animals and brought in a few long horn cattle and ponies and tamworth pigs and waited to see what would happen. Over the following 15 years (20 now I guess) they had huge outbloomings of all kinds of plants and insects and birds. It’s now one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and they’re justifiably proud of their ‘lack of work’. It’s perhaps a blueprint for how part of the UK should be managed in the future.

I’ve written here before about how I think biodiversity and rewilding could be a big movement in the future (and tech for good could play a part). Isabella Tree’s book is both a fantastic read and a wonderful contribution of lessons learned as that movement gathers pace.


A yellow penguin in New Zealand

At first I thought it was a duck. It was swimming in the white swell of the broken waves on the beach near the southern tip of New Zealand. But while it swam like a duck, it definitely didn’t walk like a duck. As we watched it awkwardly flipped upright and waddled out of the sea and onto the sandy beach.Until you’ve seen a penguin in the wild, nothing quite prepares you for how odd they look. It was like a tiny human in a penguin suit. As if its arms and legs were constricted by the very efficient swimming suit that it had on over the top.

Our trip to New Zealand over Christmas really got me thinking about the future of conservation. The yellow-eyed penguin that we saw is classed as endangered but there’s a massive effort to increase numbers along New Zealand’s coast. Mainly this involves removal of invasive species and limiting human access to some extent.

We also visited the amazing Zealandia near Wellington. Walking in at dusk was one of the most magical experiences of my life. We’d parked the car, had a short briefing, walked through double animal proof gates and then we were surrounded by flocks of species of bird that I’d never seen before and there was little doubt that they ruled this roost. The valley is cut off from any invasive species by a fence all the way around. It was created almost by accident when the city authorities realised that they’d built a dam on an earthquake fault (oops) and so the valley was pretty much abandoned until some enlightened naturalists spotted an opportunity.

Some countries like New Zealand and Costa Rica are ahead of the curve but this process is something I think we’ll see much more of over the coming decades. Not just protection but reversal of human impact on nature and reintroduction of plants and creatures that may have been previously wiped out or put on the endangered list.

We’ll see old species reintroduced — perhaps even ones that are extinct but where some genetic information is preserved. While Jurassic Park was science fiction (and we don’t have much dino-DNA), the basic idea will come true within my lifetime I think. Stuart Brand has been popularising the idea of reintroducing the carrier pigeon to north America where it was once incredibly common. Others have talked about particularly reintroducing species that were wiped out by humans. Who knows maybe one day the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’ might die out itself.