CAROLINE CRAMPTON NATURE
Wilding Isabella Tree Picador £20
In 1999, Isabella Tree and her husband Sir Charles Burrell took a difficult decision. Knepp, the 3,500-acre estate in Sussex that Burrell’s family had held since the 18th century, was no longer viable as a farm. The prices they could sell their milk and crops for were falling, but the costs of production were rising. Without more investment to further raise their productivity – and they had a £1.5million overdraft – they couldn’t continue. Workers were laid off and the tractors and harvesters sold at auction. They were farmers no more. But they secured funding to return about 350 acres to their pre-ploughed state as a deer park.
Then, after encountering the ‘rewilding’ process pioneered by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, they decided to try to transform the rest of their estate back into its pre-cultivation state of wilderness. Wilding is Tree’s account of the land’s evolution from regular fields into now-rare habitats such as wetland and scrub. They introduced historic breeds of deer, cows and pigs, allowing them to roam freely and reshape the land as they grazed. Gradually, rare species such as nightingales, turtle doves, cuckoos and painted lady butterflies found their way to Knepp.
Tree writes with the zeal of the convert: the statistics she cites in support of her argument for further rewilding come thick and fast. She cannot understand why neighbouring Sussex farmers might be unenthusiastic about replacing their cows with boar and elk, and she is rather dismissive of critics who dislike the new ‘wild’ appearance of the landscape.
In Wilding, she provides an extreme vision for the future of the British countryside – something much darker than this green and pleasant land.