Rural Reads II: Wilding
Updated: Aug 23
Wilding turns-up everywhere. It has been mentioned in almost every newspaper, magazine and blog I read, and on every podcast I listen to. It is one of those non-fiction books that seem to capture the spirit of the moment.
In Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree traces the process by which she and her husband realised the costs of continuing to intensively farm their 3,500 acres of land far outweighed the benefits, so instead began a process of rewilding on the Knepp estate. The following years saw a dual process of purposefully introducing animals such as deer, pigs, cattle and horses to the landscape, and a commitment to non-intervention. The result was an exhilarating return of nature: as the land became ‘wilder’, a host of plants and animals began to make their home at Knepp, including turtle doves, purple emperor butterflies and nightingales.
Wilding is certainly full of interesting facts, providing a fascinating array of contextual information to explain the bewildering range of topics discussed, from debates for and against a “closed-canopy” densely-forested theory of our ecological past to the byzantine laws and regulations surrounding agricultural economics. Isabella’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I am now reading every rewilding and agricultural report I can get my hands on.
The picture Isabella Tree paints is one of a natural world governed by relationships, the “symbiotic partnership” between jays and oaks, fungal mycorrhizae and trees, dung beetles and grazing animals, pigs and bees: an infinitely complex interconnected network of partnerships that the modern world routinely unravels through farming.
The impact of modern farming practices on these carefully balanced relationships cannot be underestimated. The use of potent fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics that eradicate everything except the desired product, the reconstruction of the landscape into efficient food factories, the overzealous clearing and tidying of every scrap of land to make it profitable. The language of economics – even in Wilding – is omnipresent. This is our countryside, where we go when we want to be surrounded by nature, yet almost nothing about this land is natural.
From the structure of the soil to the size of the fields, this countryside is as artificial as our cities: in fact, as Isabella Tree remarks, nature has been “exiled to the no-man’s-land of railway sidings, slag heaps, spoil tips, gravel pits, docks and abandoned quarries and mines”, meaning that conservation organisations “find themselves in the bizarre position of petitioning for the preservation of post-industrial areas for wildlife while our so-called greenfield sites, supposedly protected from development, have close to no wildlife value at all.”
Wilding is not without its difficulties, both in terms of tone and focus. On the one hand, since the book is written entirely retrospectively, we are allowed to see the changes and development of the land at Knepp, but are never permitted to see the changes and development of Isabella Tree and her family. The book would feel more personal if we were allowed to see their own development - how their attitudes towards their land changed as they learned more about the science - alongside that of their estate.
On the topic of focus, by watching the rewilding of the land through their eyes, we miss a lot of the hard work that went into the project. Throughout the book, the magic at Knepp seems to involved them sitting back and watching (they use the term non-intervention, which repeats like a leitmotif through the book), yet reading the acknowledgements at the back it is clear that an army of skilled staff and volunteers have been very much hands-on, and without whom the project would have remained a dream. I came away from Wilding keen to know more about the amazing team who made Knepp a reality.
However, the lessons from Knepp are clear: intensive farming practices area destroying our countryside, and are a major contributing factor towards the loss of biodiversity in this country and elsewhere. We are still at a tipping-point: the UK government is still in the process of deciding which elements of EU agricultural policies they want to adopt, and which need rewriting. It is an important moment for rewilding. Our natural landscape depends on us making the right decisions.