Wilding by Isabella Tree

This is a book full of joy. Tree’s joy in the nature she is now surrounded by and the often accidental route that she took to get there.

Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell are the owners of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. Burrell inherited it as a working, but declining farm. The post-war years of intensive farming practices and the use of chemicals had rendered the already marginal Sussex clay soil unproductive. Most years they made a loss and so in 2000 they simply stopped farming. The decision was made in order to prevent further losses.

They rapidly discovered that the land does not standstill. Freed from the cycles of ploughing, seeding, chemical application and harvest, the land began to revert to a natural state. Seeds in the soil and dropped by animals started to grow. This began to provide habitat for animals and Knepp became wild. The decision was made to allow the land to take its own course. Nature would now determine what happened on the estate.

This book is the story of that process. It describes the pleasure of seeing the swathes of wildflowers, of the return of birdsong and of realising the value of scrub. When nature takes its own course, it brings abundance. Not just one or two new species, but whole new populations.

Knepp is not an island. It exists in the Sussex countryside between Horsham and Worthing. The busy A24 runs along the eastern edge. Hence it has neighbours and is subject to planning laws and agricultural bureaucracy. Dealing with these human elements have been some of the most difficult aspects of the project. Some neighbours were horrified by the “waste” of what they saw as “prime” agricultural land. The Sussex clay meant that the land was never in any sense, prime, but this fact made little difference to their opinions. Agricultural bureaucracy is described in considerable detail and I was surprised by just how intrusive it is. Even a naturally created wilderness has to be DEFRA compliant.

This is a pioneer project, no one in Britain had done anything like this before. So it was always going to be shocking to those of a conservative outlook and disorienting to the officials who would have to work with this new way of regarding the land. There will have to be more projects like Knepp in order to pull British wildlife back from its horribly diminished current state. Tree’s documenting of these interactions form a large part of the book and are a valuable guide to negotiating this new frontier. A great deal has been learned over the course of this project, much of it with huge implications for human interaction with nature.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome is an idea that Tree returns to frequently. It describes the way that conservation work frequently sets its objectives. An individual or group decides that it wants to preserve an environment or ensure that a species is not lost. They do this by conserving the area as it is, or was at an arbitrary time in the past. They may also intend to encourage a return to animal numbers that existed at a particular time in the past. Whilst these activities are well-intentioned, they contain a serious flaw.

These previous states invariably do not refer to an environment being in any way natural. I realise that the term “natural” is contentious, I am using it to describe a state that would prevail if there had been no human influence. If you decide to conserve an area to return numbers of a certain bird to say, 1970 levels, this ambition frequently omits a recognition that the environment would already have been severely degraded in 1970 and bird numbers would be nowhere near what would be expected in a genuinely natural environment. It may also be the case that the bird only exists in this environment because it has nowhere else to go. It may live on heathland because the preferred habitat of the forest is not available, having been destroyed by humans. This approach to conservation has the unintended effect of conserving already degraded environments and mistaking them for desirable states of nature.

For example, the establishment of the South Downs National Park is a welcome defence against further development in the area. Much of the South Downs is grassland close-cropped by sheep. These grasslands may not be developed, but what is being preserved is the farming practices of the last two hundred years. The national park is not preserving nature, it is an agricultural museum. Two thousand years ago, the whole South Downs was forested. A return to nature would mean bringing back that forest. What should the National Park be? A gigantic agricultural museum, or a site of wild nature?

This is deeply contentious. There are those who would wish to preserve the South Downs as they are. But I think this is a wasted opportunity. The world is in an ecological crisis, there is massive biodiversity loss and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. The bold move to rewild National Parks which are not in their natural state would be a significant contribution to reversing both of these damaging trends. Knepp shows us that this can be done and what the outcomes are likely to be.

I have always lived in Sussex and I’m really glad the National Park exists. It is a welcome respite from daily life. But surely we can be bolder. The South Downs returned to its natural state, miles upon miles of indigenous woodland, full of abundant plant and animal life. What a wonderful place that would be. In order to combat the ecological crisis, decisions like this will have to be made. The current state of the countryside is leading to species collapse which will ultimately affect the productivity of the land. Without a rich productive soil and active pollinators, food will not grow. Much more land, like Knepp in 2000, will become unusable.

The experience of Knepp shows that this transformation is possible. If humans have ruined the land, nature can take it back and regenerate it. The regeneration is spectacular and not limited by human ambition. The change is spectacular and Tree describes these changes with surprise and appreciation.

Wilding is a very timely book. Knepp is an exemplar of what happens when the land fails and also how it can be restored. A rich body of knowledge has been accumulated over the twenty years of the project and much of it is in the book. It is also beautifully written and takes the reader through the experiences in just the right level of detail. The joy of all this new life is conveyed perfectly.

For anyone concerned about the ecological crisis, Wilding is essential reading. It tells us how to stop the damage and let nature heal.

Photographer, blogger, environmental activist. Interested in the climate crisis, rewilding and trying to make a change for the better.