A review of Isabella Tree’s book Wilding, by Alice Maxwell
Isabella Tree’s wonderful book Wilding gives hope and inspiration in the face of looming environmental crisis. It is a superbly written account of how Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell abandon their unprofitable, intensive farm on their Knepp estate in Sussex and instead allow nature to take her course with the land. Grazing animals are introduced – long horn cattle, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies, and they form a healthy relationship with the emerging flora and fauna, challenging preconceived ideas that Britain was once a closed canopy woodland.
Thorny scrub (gorse, hawthorn and blackthorn for example) are allowed to grow unimpeded and this protects the trees growing up within it from the mouths of hungry animals. Scrub has for too long been considered a nuisance and has been mercilessly uprooted across Britain thus destroying important habitat for dozens of species.
Tree explains the concept of Shifting Baseline Syndrome, whereby we consider our norm by what we can remember. A child’s norm is largely a bereft landscape, whereas his grandparents can remember a norm of water meadows, abundant wild flowers, and the constant buzz of insects.
The wilding of the Knepp estate is a gift of surprises. The Turtle Dove reappears, it’s soothing COO was common place to our grandparents, but it is now extremely rare across Europe – especially in the UK. . Here the shifting base syndrome comes into play – at Knepp, Tree notices that the Dove prefers to nest in the inaccessible protective scrub rather than the woodland that ornithologists describe as the Dove’s preferred territory. This must be because their natural Scrub habitat has been destroyed and they have been observed nesting in trees because they have no other choice.
As Knepp is left to its own natural devices, dozens of rare breed of butterflies, insects and invertebrates make their home there. A natural wetland appears and this prevents flooding in the local area.
Tree remains unsentimental and realistic about the future. With numerous ecological and scientific facts at her finger tips she is acutely aware of the devastating effect that intensive farming has had on the ecosystem. She realises that their one tiny project is not enough to protect creatures from extinction – the turtle dove for example is migratory and faces numerous risks on its journey here. Many creatures move from one environment to another in search of food, but these pathways have often been covered in concrete and destroyed.
This book impresses on us how interconnected we all are – the earthworm, the bee, the whole diversity of nature is vitally important to our survival. If one link in the chain is removed the whole system is in danger of crumbling.
I take heart in the popularity of this book. Waterstones has a prominently placed enormous pile of them for sale and when I was there they were offering a free coffee to anyone who purchased it. As these issues seep into our consciousness change will start to happen. We can start to resist the temptation to “tidy up nature” – using any green spaces available to us to provide food for pollinators, allowing for soil regeneration, and for natural habitats for endangered creatures to rejuvenate. Of course, greenery also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus easing the global warming crisis.
The Guardian calls this book “Hugely Important”. I absolutely agree!