Wilding – The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree
There must be very few people working in farming, or in the environmental sector who haven’t heard of the Knepp Estate. The book ‘Wilding – The Return of Nature to a British Farm’ is the story of how the Knepp experiment came about and the changes observed along the way, told by co-owner of the farm Isabella Tree. Depending on your perspective, the title either makes you feel excited or makes your blood boil. I had some pre-conceptions myself and thought I should deal with them by reading the book.
Coming not from a farming background but having spent nearly 20 years visiting hundreds of farms and talking to as many farmers, I don’t have a clear-cut view of farms being either really good or really bad, and I’ve seen all types of farms, some brimming with wildlife and others depleted monocultures (in the centre of the field at least).
‘Wilding’ was much more academic than I had expected, with references to other re-wilding experiments, and whole chapters focussing on one species. About a quarter of the way through, I was feeling rather judgemental about Burrell and Tree throwing away the opportunity to grow all that food, but a bit further on I was warming to the idea of the experiment – it did sound as if they had been fighting nature in every way, using agrochemicals to grow cereals on marginal land. I found it exciting and heart-warming to read about how quickly species returned, and how there were many surprises throughout. One of the most interesting observations was when Tree questions the myth that mature woodland is the habitat of choice for many of our birds and animals. She observes instead that given the choice many of these species appear to choose scrub and the ever changing ‘edge’ habitats.
Having worked with farmers for a long time and having really learnt to appreciate how hard it is to produce good food sustainably, the nagging parrot on my shoulder kept asking “What about the food? What about the food?”. But in writing Wilding, Tree isn’t trying to persuade all farms to follow their example, she simply describes the process and the outcomes, and it makes for fascinating reading. There are big decisions to be made about how and where we produce our food, and this book will no doubt become a reference for the debate.
Annabel Martin – Land Management Officer at WRT