Wilding by Isabella Tree – Reviewed by Cathy Watson.
Wilding is about the return of nature to a failing British farm and how gradually the land healed, and the farm began to flourish again. The book is a runaway success in the UK, selling almost 100,000 copies in its first year. But my question when I encountered it was –is wildling or rewilding relevant to Africa? I quickly learned that the answer was ‘Yes’.
First, I saw a recent article in Uganda’s Monitor by the journalist Charles Obbo, who several years ago started in his words – “a quirky small experiment to ‘rewild’ part of his ancestral land” in Tororo, Uganda. “What started as a green hobby (grew) wings,” wrote the columnist. “People now come from villages all around to take photos in what they refer to as the ‘park’.”
If Obbo is rewilding his land, others may be looking to do so too. The idea could go viral! Clearly, local people craved the shade and bird song on Obbo’s ‘wilded land’ and were finding respite. That can only be good. And who knows, if Obbo started to farm his rewilded land while maintaining its wildness, what new productivity he might find.
Second, I spoke with Wanja Kinuthia, who advocates tracts of wildflowers, so insects have food all year. “On mango farms, what will bees eat when the trees are not flowering?” “Our parents allowed wild vegetables to grow,” says the pollinator biologist at the National Museums of Kenya. “Our brothers fed rabbits wild plants. Do not burn your refuse. Those are homes for bees. Even in gated communities, we need to ensure indigenous plants.
Finally, I asked renowned Kenyan entomologist Dino Martins. “Wilding is very relevant to Africa,” he said, “because most of our ecosystems that could benefit most were recently functioning normally. We could undo the damage. And we have the megafauna and best ecosystem engineers on the planet to do it – elephants, termites and dung beetles.”
Thus, endorsed by three learned and prominent East Africans, wilding is something we all need to know about. It has the potential to help us out of the morass we are currently in - of poorly performing land, collapsing biodiversity, drying rivers, biting droughts, climate crisis, hunger and poverty.
The story of Wilding begins with the author Isabella and her husband Charlie. They own a 3,500-acre farm in the south of England. But despite imaginatively diversifying what they produce, they rarely break even. It is the year 2000, and the soil is exhausted and useful insects have been obliterated by agricultural chemicals. It is a biological desert.
“The farm was unsustainable, and the figures were shouting it out,” she writes. They take the dramatic step to let 11 staff go and to sell their livestock, tractors and combine harvester. It was like a funeral. But by 2002 things begin to change. They have had some financial support to turn part of their land into a park – something that would not be easy to obtain in East Africa – but they have also taken the out-of-the-box step of introducing ancient types of deer (antelope), cattle, horses and pigs.
Churning up the soil, browsing and opening the undergrowth, and stimulating vital soil Organisms -- the living portion of the soil -- with their manure and urine, these ‘megafauna’ start to bring health back to the land. It begins to hum with life.
Recovery is long but today the farm’s rich pasture dotted with tall healthy trees allows it to produce 75 tonnes (liveweight) of free-roaming, pasture-fed, organic meat every year -- with almost zero input costs.
You might say it’s easy for them. What can we do here? But even on small plots, leaving wild strips and integrating a few trees that are friendly to crops can increase productivity and reduce costs. Think - richer soil, birds and beneficial insects catching pests, and far more fruit from pollination. And on Kenyan ranches, allowing other megafauna can help too.
“We know that if you combine livestock and wildlife in the right proportions, both do better,” says Dino Martins, whose PhD is from Harvard where he studied under legendary biologist EO Wilson. “In one example, zebras kick open tough clumps of grass, which reveals the more nutritious parts for the livestock to eat.”