Fifteen years ago the owners of Knepp Castle estate near Horsham, West Sussex made a decision to abandon conventional and financially ruinous dairy farming, and let nature choose what happened next.
Knepp now feels like a parallel universe: there are thickets of hawthorn and dog rose; red deer and Tamworth pigs roam freely; there’s the riotous cacophony of chaffinch, yellowhammer, chiffchaff, skylark, blackcap, wren, nightingales and cuckoos.
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We’ve become used to things being otherwise. Habitat destruction, exploitation of nature and pollution mean that half of all animal life on Earth has disappeared in my lifetime. The world has lost about 60% of wild vertebrates since 1970. Declines in insects (pollinators, detritus-eaters and foundations of carnivorous food chains) threaten to catastrophically destabilise global ecosystems. And the emission of greenhouse gases needs to be addressed if we are to have a chance of preventing climate catastrophe; the government’s climate advisers reported this month that UK emissions must fall to zero by 2050.
The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are linked. But there is a solution that addresses both – and that can revitalise local economies: a 2017 report by the Local Government Association and Public Health England notes that “within even the most affluent [rural] areas, there can be real hardship, deprivation, ill health and inequalities” because of seasonal work and poor access to services.
A new plan, published by Rewilding Britain, calls for billions of pounds of farm subsidies to be redirected towards creating more places like Knepp: native woodlands and meadows, and protecting peat bogs and salt marshes. The group claims that wildlife would benefit, farmers would not lose out financially and food production would be maintained. The new wild environments would also be a boost to rural economies: in the UK, tourism already brings in more revenue – £18.6bn – and provides more employment for the rural sector than farming.
Rewilding, wilding or ecosystem restoration would put nature back in the driving seat. When living systems – forests, peat bogs, saltmarshes and the seabed – are allowed to recover, they sequester carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating or even avoiding the dangers of global warming.
A number of individuals and organisations are already on the case. Since purchasing the 23,000 acre Alladale Estate in Sutherland in 2003, Paul Lister has devoted himself to rewilding the landscape. More than 800,000 Scots pine have been planted in the past 10 years and Lister’s long-term aim is to reintroduce a pack of wolves. And there’s an economic upside: the wildlife attracts tourist money, with high-end accomodation, safaris and shooting.
More recently, after becoming the largest landowners in Scotland, the Danish billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen announced their intention to rewild an area of 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) across Sutherland and the Grampian mountains. They propose culling large numbers of red deer to relieve grazing pressure and allow a natural expansion of native pine forest – and, maybe one day, restore the apex predators (wolf, lynx and bear).
From an ecological perspective, the potential is extraordinary, but there is hostility to the grand plans. Neighbouring estates are managed to maintain large numbers of deer for stalking and grouse for shooting. Walkers set great store by their right to roam, and worry that wolf fencing would prevent them.
Even within conservation circles, the issue is contentious. For the purist, rewilding explicitly requires the reinstatement of top predators, which in Britain should be wolf and lynx. Without them, smaller ‘meso-predators’ such as foxes thrive, and large prey species such as deer increase to the point that they change the whole landscape, meaning balance in the system can only be maintained with human intervention.
A true rewilded landscape must be entirely self-balancing. Which means it must also be vast. Just occasionally, such spaces are in the hands of individuals such as Lister and the Povlsens, with a will to make things happen. But it can’t happen in the average back yard.
A less pure, but highly pragmatic form of restoration is wilding. This can happen everywhere. It requires only an element of letting go to move natural systems towards complexity. The larger the area of land involved, the better, but they don’t have to be in one slab. Wilding can happen on every scale, from window box to garden, farm or country estate.
At the heart of Knepp’s experiment is the influence of the Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera, whose ground-breaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History identified grazing animals as a fundamental and necessary force of natural disturbance. The estate, owned by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, at 3,500 acres, is less than 2% the area of the Povlsen Wildland scheme. There are no wolves or lynx, so the large herbivores are culled for meat. It may not be entirely self-balancing, but this land is healing, and it is doing so at startling speed.
The process is not just an ecological vanity project but a working business model: Knepp has expanded into offering accommodation – treehouses, shepherd’s huts, tents or yurts – as well as vehicle-based safaris and guided walking tours to experience birds, mammals, butterflies, beetles, reptiles, plants and fungi in a setting that the owners claim feels as wild and dynamic as the African bush.
We live in a nation where the privations of two world wars, followed by decades of rapid population growth, have fanned an obsession with food security. Any widespread ecological restoration scheme is challenged by calls to cultivate – not liberate. We’re determined that every scrap of land has to be for something, forgetting that, perhaps, some of it was already for something else: absorbing or cleaning water; sequestering carbon; supporting biodiversity; or preventing soil washing into rivers every time it rains.
Rewilding and wilding can be a hard sell. Humans don’t like mess or uncertainty, and natural systems are dynamic, complex, untidy, and erratic. These are the characteristics that bring both diversity and resilience. We must learn to read their inconvenience as a sign that all is well. We should be embracing the mess.
At the local scale, a window box can grow native wildflowers, which support local pollinators; boxes for birds, bats and bees can be installed on most buildings. Road verges could be mowed far less often. On farmland, mindful that profit margins are small, subsidies for obsessive tidying of land into ‘agricultural condition’ could instead pay for 10% of every farm, ideally the edges, to be nature-friendly.
The result could be a vast network of areas where no pesticides are used, where hedgerows grow into huge, tenanted wildlife highways, where field margins several metres wide are filled with nectar-rich and seed-bearing ‘weeds’, where soggy patches were undrained, where ancient trees were given space for both their roots and their children to grow, sheltered from browsing by thickets of thorn.
Just as farmers are emphatically part of the solution, so are local communities. A nature-based economy can provide jobs to help young people stay in their communities, learn new skills, raise their families and sustain the area’s vitality. Povlsen has emphasised the importance of community support, saying no introductions will take place without the support of local people.
He’s taking his time – his vision is a 200-year-long process. Meanwhile, wilding on your patch can start today. Think hedges not fences; think nectar-, seed- and berry-bearing plants; think pond and bramble patches and log piles; tolerate scruffy corners. You’ll see a difference in a matter of weeks.
Wilding is as much about people as it is about nature. One of the first species to benefit from a wholesale change of heart will be our own.