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.

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