Wilding - The Return of Nature to a British Farm

Anthony Powell | Thursday, 18th April 2019
The amazing story of the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex by Isabella Tree (the author) and husband, the environmentalist, Charlie Burrell.
Author: Isabella Tree
Publisher: Picador
Publication year: 2018
RRP: £20.00

What do you do with an inherited farm that makes a loss year after year?

This was the problem facing Isabella and husband Charlie, who had been using his farming training for all he was worth on the Knepp Estate. The clay soils of West Sussex had a predilection for swallowing machinery in winter, or of setting brick hard in summer. Sussex dialect has around 30 terms for different types of mud.

They had an ancient oak tree, attracting the attention of a man who knew his oaks, Ted Green. He told them how to prolong its life; a bit of trimming upstairs to stop it pulling itself apart, and allowing lower branches to touch the ground and offer support. He also pointed to the desperate trees in the field, ploughed to their bases. We then hear about oaks: how they’re not really woodland trees, and how propagation depends on jays and brambles, and ultimately on large herbivores.

Tired of throwing good money after bad, they sold off the farm machinery. They were setting off into uncharted territory. Protecting Knepp’s oaks was the goal, but it brought a new way of thinking and vast changes for the farm. It meant returning the farm to permanent pasture, of a scrubby, bushy nature. And insects and much other wildlife appreciated the regenerating soil and ecology. The book is a story of nearly two decades of adventure and learning.

Big issues with the neighbours stemmed from the apparent lack of care and weed growth. Different age groups conceived the rampant weeds and hedge growth differently. Ragwort caused a furore, and there was much education needed into the misuse of statistics that caused its blacklisting.

They were introduced to Frans Vera, whose book Forest History and Grazing Ecology was published in English in 2000. They visited his project in the Netherlands, at Oostvaardersplassen; 23 square miles of free ranging ponies, cattle, red deer and bison. All have their place in managing the landscape, including the return of woodland to biodiverse grassland. Equines and bovines graze cooperatively. Vera’s theory about the landscape being a mix of woodland and grassland, managed by large herbivores, is gaining popularity: in woodland, old trees fall, make a clearing, herbivores enlarge it to grassland, then thorny seedlings form thickets, protecting young trees, which expand into woodland. Oostvaardersplassen was an inspiration, but couldn’t be copied in an English setting. Bison would not have gone down well with dog walkers, and wild boar (although existing in the UK as escapees) would have to be substituted with Tamworth pigs.

We learn how between them, Victorians and sheep increased the prospect of rivers flooding. Beavers had already found their way to Oostvaardersplassen, but us British were still wary of them and their water engineering; they’re still under trial elsewhere in the UK. So plans to wild the river fell to a mechanical digger. Perimeter deer fences were another expense.

As the various parts of the farm became ready, the large herbivores were moved in. There was concern for the English Longhorn cattle in their first winter totally outdoors, but they survived with a little healthy loss of weight. They learnt where all the food sources were, including adding roughage from bushes and trees and avoiding rich rye grass. Advice from Bud Williams (videos available online) made rounding them up (to prevent bulls from covering heifers when they’re too young) much easier, something manageable on foot (would such techniques apply to other animals, e.g. hens?); and Temple Grandin advised on identifying one of their cows as being less docile, a trait to preferably breed out of a herd in close public contact.

Apart from becoming a haven for large herbivores, Knepp was also becoming home for other rarities: turtle doves, purple emperor and purple hairstreak butterflies, nightingales, barbastelle and other rare bats, even a pair of Egyptian geese. They found many in environments not expected per textbook, because those were the only places within the traditional British landscape where they could satisfy their needs.

Now the estate hosts wildland safaris and camping, and small industrial units in the former farm buildings, that include a butcher, cutting Knepp’s and other selected animals and offering butchery courses.

Permaculture isn’t mentioned, but Knepp is certainly using the many facets of the various creatures, maximising edge and diversity, and producing a surplus. It might be interesting if they tried to produce fruits, nuts and veg, but they might have to fight or work around the Tamworths! I thought I knew a lot about ecology; I learnt loads more.

Anthony Powell is an active member of Transition Northwich and co-ordinator of Vale Royal Environment Network