Wilding by Isabella Tree took the British nature writing scene by storm in 2018. We try to live sustainably so it was a book I really wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until someone handed us a copy this year. Although I wouldn’t exactly call this an easy read, I can see why it’s created such a ripple effect among conservationists and wildlife-lovers. It makes you see nature in a completely different light.
In Wilding, Isabella Tree tells the story of the ‘Knepp experiment’, a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, Wilding is, above all, an inspiring story of hope.
Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.
Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesse hir spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells’ degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.
You have to hold your nerve when reading Wilding. It combines stark facts with history, ecology and farming terminology. On screen, this doesn’t seem like an enticing blend, but the combination of all these elements reveals a startling and hopeful picture.
The introduction plunges you into the cold reality of nature decline throughout the British Isles.
‘Between the beginning of the war and the 1990s we lost 75,000 miles of hedgerows. Up to 90 per cent of wetland has disappeared in England since the Industrial Revolution. 80 per cent of Britain’s lowland heathland has been lost since 1800; a quarter of the acreage in the last fifty years. 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the war.’
Isabella Tree then recounts the history of the Knepp estate and the moment when they started to see the land differently. This happened when an experienced tree warden named Ted Green pointed out that their ancient oaks were suffering because the soil had been damaged. From here, Isabella and her husband Charlie set out on a journey to restore the biodiversity on the farm.
There are 12 chapters in total. Each one covers a different aspect of wildlife on the farm – from wild ponies to Purple Emperor butterflies. Tree goes into some depth about each subject and shows how they’ve rolled out the ideas on the farm. There’s a lot to absorb and although every area was interesting, I skim-read some of the topics. The nice thing about Wilding is that you can dip and out. A bit like Knepp itself, the structure has an organic feel to it.
I’m also glad that the publishing company decided to include colour photographs and maps in the both the hardback and paperback editions. It was satisfying the see the before and after images of the estate, which clearly show the impact that rewilding had made.
Thematically, Wilding is important in that it reveals how nature re-balances itself when human interventions are minimised. For instance, they discovered that Painted Lady butterfly caterpillars were able to destroy a crop of invasive creeping thistle. Only by standing back, could Isabella and Charlie witness these natural cycles. And that’s what they continue to do in fascinating and often revolutionary way at Knepp.
But that’s not to say that it’s all perfect either. As someone who’s interested in the green agenda, I can recognise the limitations with the book. For a start, there’s a large emphasis on grazing animals, which doesn’t align with climate action initiatives. In addition to this, the Knepp estate is a product of inherited wealth and connection to the Establishment. Most farmers wouldn’t be able to run a commercial enterprise in this way.
Putting these issues aside though, I’d definitely classify Wilding as a seminal book. I volunteer for several environmental charities and people often cite Knepp as an example when it comes to restoring biodiversity. It’s also influenced the way we look after our garden at home. For the first time this year, we’ve really let nature take hold and have seen some tiny miracles. The way that buttercups and grasses grow tall around young cherry saplings; a rainwater pond full of newts, frogs and damselflies; how pollinators are attracted to ‘weeds’. As Isabella Tree says at the end of Wilding
‘We travelled the world to see wildlife. We campaigned to stop the felling of rainforests and the building of dams. Yet we were blind to what we were doing in our own back yard.’
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Number of pages: 384
If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in our other book reviews.