Looks like Africa: big pigs, similar to hippos, standing in ponds and lapping up water. Four-legged friends that stride through the wilderness with mighty horns. A river that meanders its way through the green. Only the ranger is missing, who bends around the bushes with his jeep.
The images come from England, home of manicured lawns, rolling hills and idyllic country parks that pretend to be nature but were created by people with a sense of style. The photos were taken at Knepp, a property in the south not far from London. They illustrate the book that Isabella Tree wrote about an incredible experiment, the deliberate renaturation of her farm: “Wild Land”.
Tree and her husband were no better off than many farmers. The price of their grain fell as their debt increased. And they would have had to borrow more to invest in even bigger machines. The already difficult clay soil was exhausted. A good 20 years ago, the couple gave up intensive farming and “stumbled” into renaturation. It began with the subsidized deconstruction of farmland that was created during World War II – where there was once a park and now is again.
Isabella Tree comes from the home of nature writing, she describes flora and fauna precisely and vividly. Like how the imperial cloak loops tightly in front of the female butterfly, “stopping now and again to allow her to fly under it, through a shower of intoxicating fragrant scales falling from its forewings.”
The author has a rare ability to rave without becoming sentimental. She raves about numbers that play a big, often frightening role. According to Tree, between 1972 and 1996 the number of larks fell by 75 percent, and the number of orchards fell from 113,000 to 22,000 hectares since 1951. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of nightingales in Great Britain fell by 53 percent, and they had also disappeared from Knepp. The songbirds now give regular concerts there. 89 different types of moss can be found on the property, which is home to 62 different species of bees.
My own experiences and insights are supported by scientific studies and extensive reading – the bibliography alone comprises 19 pages. Again and again Tree goes far and tells what England looked like 30, 300 and 3000 years ago.
“Wildes Land” is not one of the countless books that tell of personal projects such as building a house or laying out a garden, whose authors flirt with their own ignorance for the sake of the humorous effect and imagine failure. Tree soberly reports failures and errors; she and her husband get down to business systematically.
The biggest influence on her is the Dutch biologist and ecologist Frans Vera, who sounds almost like her guru and who has overseen a huge rewilding project, the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. Vera is now part of the advisory board that accompanies Knepp’s experiment, together with a large number of ecologists, professors, representatives of various institutions and foundations, such as Natural England, Butterfly Trust or the National Trust, Europe’s largest cultural and conservation organization that every tourist in England knows. Started as an act of desperation, the renaturation project has long since become a model for rewilding, a movement that comes from America.
Although she shares her own experiences, Isabella Tree only reveals as much personal information as is relevant to the story. For example, that her husband spent part of his childhood in Africa and has an affinity for the continent. Dealing with the wilderness there has shaped them both, some of which they have even transferred to West Sussex. The couple now offer safaris on the estate themselves.
The author knows the world anyway. As a travel journalist she has visited remote regions for various newspapers and has written books on Papua New Guinea, Mexico and Nepal. Despite their closeness to nature, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell are not hippies. They offer their visitors camping, glamping and tree houses for overnight stays, they themselves live in the castle that belongs to the estate. Charlie’s real name is Sir Charles Raymond, the tenth Baronet Burrell comes from an old noble family. Incidentally, the author mentions that polo tournaments and handicraft markets take place in the area around the castle, Indian weddings are celebrated. Tourism is an important source of income. There are many kilometers of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails across its 1400 hectares of land.
The restoration project doesn’t aim to simply abandon the land to its own devices so that it falls back into the Stone Age – which, according to Tree, could take tens of thousands of years or more. It is about the coexistence of humans, animals and plants in the 21st century. It is all the more surprising that the word cohabitation, which is so popular at the moment, is not mentioned at all.
When selecting the cattle, pigs and ponies that they gradually brought to their estate, Tree and Burrell initially based their decisions on the fauna that existed in the area in the early days. Now longhorns are replacing the extinct aurochs. They had to be robust animals that can still survive on their own today, don’t need stables even in winter and, with a few exceptions, don’t need a veterinarian. That’s how they came up with the English Longhorns, Fallow Deer, Tamworth Hogs and Exmoor Ponies. But it was just as important that the four-legged friends do not attack walkers. They had to part with the pony stallion again: he was doing it too wildly.
No species lives in isolation here, each has consequences for other living beings. So the pigs literally prepare the ground for others by plowing through it. “Through their burrowing, they produce the right germination conditions in the right environment for the annual and biennial weeds that lovebirds like to eat in summer.” The return of the lovebirds is one of the sensations in Knepp. Lots of small animals live in a bush that grows as it wants, while thorn bushes, which are not pulled out here but are allowed to shoot up, are extremely important for the trees.
It is about the peaceful, but also affordable coexistence of different living beings. So the longhorns are slaughtered at the end of their happy lives; Isabella Tree raves about the quality and the taste of the organic meat that fine restaurants roast. Even the greatest nature lovers have to make a living from something. The experiment costs money. Lot of money. This is not possible without subsidies.
Today, Kemp is a place of pilgrimage for nature lovers, environmentalists, rewilders, bird watchers. But the project was not only met with enthusiasm. The author, not entirely free from complacency, does not hide the criticism, especially from the neighbors, who were outraged at how run-down and foreign the country looked, or that the ragwort was exploding. But where the others see weeds, Tree sees an Eldorado for insects.
The neighbors also found it outrageous that someone had given up farming and thus growing food. Tree counters that if tons of food weren’t thrown away, there wouldn’t be as much land used for agriculture.
In the meantime, the experiment has apparently fallen on open ears. The very old and the young are particularly happy, says Tree. Wild Country has sold over 200,000 copies in the UK. For Isabella Tree, Knepp is a success story that is far from over after 20 years — it could be wilder for her taste. It is hopeful reading, because no matter how denatured a country maltreated with artificial fertilizers and monocultures may be, it can recover.
Of course, all of this takes a lot of time, work, money, skill and patience, not least when it comes to dealing with authorities, legal regulations and applying for funding. So it took nine years before the canalized river was freed and allowed to return to its flood plains, which not only looks nicer, but also effectively protects against flooding. And this despite the fact that the environmental authority was convinced of the idea from the start.
It’s probably easier to endure if you count in generations rather than years, like Sir Charles – his son will be the eleventh Baronet Burrell. (Daughters still cannot inherit titles and estates in the English aristocracy.) And how many nature lovers have 3,000 acres at their disposal?
What nature lover Isabella Tree fears: that Knepp could be placed under nature protection. It would mean freezing the status quo, losing freedom, turning around, embarking on new projects. The experiment should always have an open end.