ECOS 39(5): Book Review: WILDING

ECOS 39(5)


The return of nature to a British farm

Isabella Tree



238 pages

Hardback £20

ISBN: 978-1-5098-0509-9

Review by Alison Parfitt

Nature’s surprises from a freed-up ecosystem

This book is the story of the wilding of the Knepp Castle Estate. It is a story full of surprises which bring a lot of learning for us all. Knepp is a privately-owned estate in West Sussex. Charlie Burrell the owner, married to Isabella Tree, our author, gave up the struggle to make money farming their heavy Sussex clay soils in 2000. Since then some of the land has been reseeded, some just left. Longhorn cattle, fallow and red deer, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs have been introduced as roaming grazers and foragers. Now, Isabella describes what has happened on their land and how their thinking developed and their attitudes changed as a result of who they met and the places that influenced them.

Through the story of Knepp the book also says a lot about wilding or as Times journalist Michael McCarthy puts it: “[this] 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.”

A simple map shows how the estate is broadly divided by roads into three parts; the Middle Block, including the restored Repton Park, and the Northern Block have more woodland and pasture. The Southern Block is different and is introduced as such: “Ironically, this frustrating hiatus proved the most positive move of all for rewilding. Our haphazard process of freeing the land in stages, combined with no seeding of grass and a delay in introducing the heavy-hitting grazers, proved to be rocket fuel to natural processes, generating opportunities for wildlife that were far more exciting than anything we were doing elsewhere.”

The frustration became years of delay as Knepp petitioned the powers-that-be for money for fencing and resources to implement a conservation grazing strategy. Each year more fields were left ungrazed and untouched; scrub and bramble and much else grew. In different ways, the book gives us some detail of at least three interesting lessons that come from this happenstance.

Free-ranging Tamworth pigs at Knepp Estate
Photo: Jilly Rosser

Lessons from the Southern Block

The first lesson is about the value of scrub and how it protects and encourages natural regeneration of trees: “emerging scrub is one of the richest natural habitats on the planet”. This will not be a new realisation for ECOS readers but “in modern times even conservationists have struggled to promote the value of scrub. Part of the problem is its ephemeral nature…[it] is habitat on the move…the more you cut it down the more prolific it becomes. The Woodland Trust and other tree charities have marvelled at the speed of regeneration…as well as the variety of species spontaneously establishing themselves – including wild service and crab apple.” This is not a new realisation but even today how much do conservation practitioners take this on board?

The second lesson is about people’s reactions to seeing parts of Knepp ‘invaded by scrub’. Feedback and correspondence included the following: ‘I love wildlife, I love the countryside, I love to go somewhere and see butterflies and moths and hedgehogs ….” but not here apparently, not in south east England. Some said it looked as though the land was for sale or the farmer had died. Elsewhere on the estate, the park restoration around Knepp Castle generally received a favourable response “where you have the deer running around and the cattle it is a lovely sight”. To most people the Repton deer park conformed to a romantic ideal … it was orderly and unthreatening. … Abandoning the land to nature, on the other hand, ‘letting it go’ smacked of laziness, irresponsibility, even immorality. It was “uncivilised … wanton vandalism”. These comments were conveyed in local papers, personal correspondence, a student survey, and via the Parish Council. Heartfelt criticisms were made about abandoning traditional farming, weeds, about loss of production and food security in times of rising population and deep uncertainty, bad use of tax payers money, and creating a wasteland. The discussion and unpicking of these views, in a chapter called Creating a Mess, is instructive if not entertaining. Then, all this was made considerably worse when an exceptionally fine crop of ragwort bloomed.

Yellow and purple

‘Knepp Castle, ragwort shame
Spread like a plague, and who’s to blame …’

This is the start of a poem sent to the County Times. The short chapter, Living with the Yellow Peril, about ragwort came as a revelation to me. Like many people it seems, I have been misled by bad science, the demonising of invasive species, and copious rumour about ragwort. I recommend reading this chapter to reconsider the accepted understanding of ragwort. Nonetheless, whatever the facts of the matter we need to learn that the ragwort at Knepp only served to create more prejudice and criticism.

“Compared with the Southern Block, the re-seeded grasslands of the Middle and Northern Blocks have changed relatively little. A small-mammal survey carried out in the summer of 2016 showed just how dramatic the effect of the increased vegetation structure in the Southern Block has been”. The text goes on to give detail about the small mammals and seemingly countless insects, abundance and rarities. And we can always enjoy lists of names of moths. So this third lesson again starts with the messy rich vegetation that has flourished but is actually about us being open to the unexpected, to the glorious and not even imagined arrivals of nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperors.

Perhaps I don’t need to describe for ECOS readers the excitement and rich vocabulary that Matthew Oates, ‘the butterfly man’, expresses when describing his finding and watching the purple emperor butterflies at Knepp. There have been features on radio and TV as well as in the press.  While you will see purple emperors flying high around mature oaks it is the sallow scrub nearby where the females lurk and the caterpillars grow. After more discussion about what is being learnt about this butterfly (in the past it was thought of as a woodland species) the author states: “It was becoming clear…that had we set out with the intention of creating the perfect habitat for purple emperors, we would never have achieved the numbers that have spontaneously emerged through rewilding”. Knepp now has the biggest colony of purple emperor butterflies in Britain.

What do we know?

The arrival of the purple emperors and other examples evidence Isabella’s recording of this quote from Frans Vera: “When I said, in 1980, that I was hoping to attract white-tailed eagles to Oostvaardersplassen, everyone said I was mad… For a start, I was told they would never nest so close to huge human populations, and never in anything but giant oaks, beech or pine – never in willows. But that was simply because no one had observed them to do this. There hadn’t been that opportunity for them. So the white-tailed eagle has become tied in our minds to a remote montaine habitat with oaks and pines. And if we want to conserve white-tailed eagles that is what we are told to provide”.

Frans Vera’s message from Holland continues in the book: “We’ve become trapped by our own observations. We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we are looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants. Species maybe surviving at the very limits of their range, clinging on in conditions that don’t really suit them. Open up the box, allow natural processes to develop, give species a wider scope to express themselves, and you get a very different picture…” This book helps us to understand how the various happenings at Knepp are also proving this point.

Wood pasture theory

Isabella is clear that a turning point for her and Charlie was the publication in 2000 in English of Frans Vera’s book Forest History and Grazing Ecology, and meeting Vera at Oostvaardersplassen. The chapter The Secret of Grazing Animals describes this and the following chapter, A World of Wood Pasture describes and gives evidence for Vera’s theory that says “our roots are in wood pasture” rather than closed canopy woodland. However well-argued and detailed Isabella’s description of the grazers and wood pasture theory is, I worry there is a whiff of dogma in strongly promoting Vera’s view that is out of place with the thrust of the book. Elsewhere the book challenges received wisdom and theory, urging us to be more open minded about conservation, nature and the potential of places around us. It is this that makes me recommend the book to a wide range of readers.

Wilding as broad spectrum restoration

In the introduction Isabella writes: “The key to Knepp’s success, conservationists are beginning to realise, is its focus on self-willed ecological processes… Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no pre-determined targets to meet, no species or numbers to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking... When we began rewilding the estate 17 years ago we had no idea about the science or the controversies surrounding conservation. Charlie and I embarked on the project out of an amateurish love for wildlife and because we would have lost an impossible amount of money if we had continued to farm. We had no idea how influential and multi-faceted the project would become… We had no idea Knepp would end up a focal point for today’s most pressing problems: climate change, soil restoration, food quality and security, crop pollination, carbon sequestration, water resources and purification, flood mitigation, animal welfare and human health”. This sounds like several tall orders but the book does make these links with what is being learnt and experienced at Knepp.

Making rewilding pay

An enthusiastic reviewer on the Amazon web sit says that this book should be given to every farmer and landowner. While the book clearly sets out to share the success of Knepp and help us all appreciate nature in a more optimistic way and relish the potential of this sort of rewilding, it does not, on its own, give enough numerical information to ‘convert’ a landowner. Isabella is clear about the fortunate turns of fate, together with eventual and exceptional support from Natural England that led to public money being given to Knepp for now nearly 20 years, firstly as Countryside Stewardship for the Northern and Middle Blocks and then as HLS for the whole estate (Southern, Middle and Northern Blocks). And that without this support the extensive and expensive changes in fencing, which were necessary for all this to come to pass, would not have been paid for. To be more easily convinced about ‘doing a Knepp’, other land owners and managers would immediately want to know more about annual income and expenditure. Day long courses are offered for this market at Knepp with Charlie Burrell who is also Chair of Rewilding Britain.

The Knepp wildlife safaris, camping (glamping) and courses are a success This year an extra 42 safaris were run to cope with demand. There is also income from high value, pasture feed meat. So here we have a model, of public money used on private land, showing how to make rewilding pay. This is not discussed in the book but what happens if or when the payments of subsidy stop? Isabella explains that the future owners of Knepp, the next generation, will be free to decide for themselves whether to farm the estate or not. So the longevity we often think about in any wilding project context is not to be assumed here. And of course there is the deep and seemingly eternal question about the rights and wrongs of private landownership. I realise I am spoiling the party by mentioning this question, but it is there.

Farming and rewilding

Another question is, of course, what comes after Brexit? Isabella writes: “So far in the post-Brexit debate, farming and conservation have been pitted against each other, as if the two must battle it out for resources. But as experience at Knepp and elsewhere has demonstrated, farming and conservation need not – should not – be at loggerheads. Giving over areas that are not on prime agricultural land to nature – land sparing in the jargon – is farming’s greatest ally. By halting and reversing land degradation, securing water resources and providing insects for crop pollination, rewilding provides services vital to the long-term sustainability of agriculture and food production”. Here we have Knepp offered as a model for minimum input agriculture and maximum wildlife in the future.

Vintage symbols of wild nature, wild landscape

Opposite page 236 a photo caption reads: “This 17,500- year-old painting of a wild horse at Lascaux in France is remarkably evocative of the Exmoor pony, one of Europe’s oldest breeds of horse. Herds of horses, or tarpan, once roamed our landscape and the Exmoor can provide the same beneficial stimulus to our ecosystem today”. Yes, there are Exmoors at Knepp as part of the grazing regime. Isabella tells some entertaining stories about them as well as suggesting they could be used for charcuterie in the future. But just look for a moment, I so much enjoyed these two images, hinting at vigorous life and of bridging time. Perhaps it sounds trite to speak of an affirmation of spirit, wilding spirit, but these photographs of truly untamed animals linger with me.

Emerging scrub at Knepp Estate
Photo: Jilly Rosser


ECOS has been publishing pieces describing and referencing Knepp for at least 12 years and The Wildland Network was generously hosted at Knepp for a two day visit in Spring 2007 when Frans Vera and others of the then Knepp Advisory Group joined us. Since then much wilding discussion has happened and has influenced and inspired people, including myself. For continuing dialogue I thank colleagues from the Wildland Research Institute WRi at University of Leeds, and David Russell and Jude Smith in Gloucestershire.

ECOS 39(5): Contents

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase

Ploughing a New Furrow by Malcom Smith

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell

End of the Megafauna by Ross D. E. MacPhee

A Shadow Above by Joe Shute

Leave a Reply