Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp in West Sussex was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.
Once-common species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.
This recovery has taken place against a backdrop of catastrophic loss elsewhere. According to the 2016 'State of Nature' report, the UK is ranked 29th in the world for biodiversity loss: 56% of species in the UK are in decline and 15% are threatened with extinction. We are living in a desert, compared with our gloriously wild past.
In Wilding, Isabella Tree tells the story of the 'Knepp experiment' and what it reveals of the ways in which we might regain that wilder, richer country. It shows how rewilding works across Europe; that it has multiple benefits for the land; that it can generate economic activity and employment; how it can benefit both nature and us – and that all of this can happen astonishingly quickly. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, Wilding is, above all, an inspiring story of hope.
Map of the Knepp estate
Chapter - 1: Meeting a Remarkable Man under a Remarkable Tree
Chapter - 2: At Odds with Everything
Chapter - 3: The Serengeti Effect
Chapter - 4: The Secret of Grazing Animals
Chapter - 5: A World of Wood Pasture
Chapter - 6: Wild Ponies, Pigs and Longhorn Cattle
Chapter - 7: Creating a Mess
Chapter - 8: Living with the Yellow Peril
Chapter - 9: Painted Ladies and the Perfect Storm
Chapter - 10: Purple Emperors
Chapter - 11: Nightingales
Chapter - 12: Turtle Doves
Chapter - 13: Rewilding the River
Chapter - 14: Bringing Back the Beaver
Chapter - 15: Pasture-fed
Chapter - 16: Rewilding the Soil
Chapter - 17: The Value of Nature
Appendix: Knepp Wildland Advisory Board
List of Illustrations
Isabella Tree is an award-winning author, travel writer, and manager of the the Knepp Wildland Project, together with her husband Charlie. She is the author of several books, including The Living Goddess and The Bird Man.
"A poignant, practical and moving story of how to fix our broken land, this should be conservation's salvation; this should be its future; this is a new hope."
– Chris Packham, presenter of The Really Wild Show
"The remarkable story of an astounding transformation."
– George Monbiot, author of Feral
"Every farmer (and perhaps every conservationist) in Britain needs to go and spend a day at Knepp. The Knepp 'wilding' project is a vitally important experiment for working out what we can do to let Nature back into our farmed landscapes [...] This book tells this vital story and deserves to be widely read."
– James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd's Life
"A thrilling, inspiring and deeply moving story of a wildlife revolution on an ordinary English farm, Wilding shows us what we have lost and what we could regain if we change our relationship with the countryside."
– Patrick Barkham, author of Badgerlands
"Wilding describes the inspirational story of a pioneering rewilding experiment that is changing the way we look at Nature, the countryside and conservation. Beautifully written, it marks the moment when the task at hand can no longer be about slowing down the inexorable decline of wildlife, but to begin the job of restoration."
– Tony Juniper, former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth
"So often we read of the countryside in shock and so seldom to we learn of its recovery. This is a pioneering, wonderful book, blooming with humour, practicality, science and lessons learned; a story whose heart beats in the same neck of the woods as Walden. Read Wilding and restore your belief in the return of nature."
– Nicholas Crane, author of The Making Of The British Landscape
"Anyone with any interest in land – from a window-box to a National Park – needs to read this book."
– Simon Barnes, author of How to be a Bad Birdwatcher
"Charming, inspirational and thought-provoking. Beautifully captures the magic and excitement of the Knepp rewilding project."
– Professor Dave Goulson
"Wilding is truly the most magnificent and inspiring book."
– Adam Nicholson, author of The Seabird's Cry
"Isabella Tree's riveting book captures the excitement of an immensely powerful new idea: that to save our beleaguered wildlife, we should move beyond conserving what remains – we should restore what we have lost. Fascinating in its detail and thrilling in its sense of possibilities, this is essential reading for anyone concerned with the future of the natural world in the demanding times to come."
– Michael McCarthy, author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy