May Book of the Month: ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree

You would be forgiven for wondering why a book about re-wilding a British farm features in our book of the month series. In fact, it is recommended reading for anyone at all concerned with wildlife and farming policy, species decline and loss of biodiversity. It also makes for fascinating read.

The author recounts the story of the journey made by herself and her husband, Charlie. Both are arable and dairy farmers who had increasingly been adopting intensified farming methods before coming to the realisation in 1999 that their farm on the Knepp Castle Estate was financially unsustainable. This economic reality propelled them to seek Government funding – under the umbrella of a European Community agri-environment policy – for a park restoration project. This is where it all begins.

The book draws attention to how changes in land use, including intensive farming and the use of chemical fertilisers and weed killers, have altered the landscape and had a dramatic effect on plant life and the natural water courses upon which many animal and birds species depend.

It is sobering to read that whilst England has the largest membership of wildlife protection organizations in Europe, it has ‘the smallest amount of land nationally protected as nature reserves’ and the magnitude of the difference is astonishing. The scale of species decline is also staggering. The author highlights that ‘[b]etween 2002 and 2013, more than half our species declined in numbers.’

As for the factors contributing to this sorry state of affairs, the author points to the loss of thousands of miles of trees and hedgerows following changes in land use which have been encouraged by the farm subsidy system that continued after the Second World War and the fuelling of pressures towards large industrialized farms that followed Britain joining the Common Market in 1974.

The impact of fertilisers, pesticides, livestock dung and industrial ploughs upon the mycorrhizae (I learnt that these are the fungal filaments extending from the roots of plants and trees to supply nutrients and water, often spreading across many miles) is also considered, and this too makes for sobering reading. Britain’s poor track record of creating green bridges for roaming species is also disappointing.

It is against this backdrop that the author describes the ‘wilding’ journey, from planting meadows to introducing wild species, such as red deer, longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs who roam wild on the land. It is the introduction of beavers to rivers across Europe and America which is arguably the most fascinating aspect of re-wilding, due to the chronicled benefits for flood management and ecosystem support that in turn sustains a whole host of species.

Ultimately, the book offers hope that the losses are not irreversible. From butterflies to turtle doves and nightingales, the author chronicles beautifully their appearance and rising numbers. Often the results of initiatives, such as the encouragement of scrub land and ragwort, are as astonishing as they are unpredictable. The lessons learnt from the Knepp project must surely inform the agricultural and environmental policies of the future. This text is likely to go a long way towards educating us all about such projects and what they tell us about ecosystems and the policies that support them to protect and restore our British wildlife.

– Review written by A-law Chairwoman, Paula Sparks. You can purchase Wilding here.

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