Isabella Tree – Rewilding Knepp Castle
According to E. O. Wilson, ‘biophilia’ is the innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world. It is quite simply the human ‘love for life’. Yet, if the tendency to be closely associated with the natural world is intrinsic, then why is the UK ranked amongst the most nature-depleted countries globally?
Isabella Tree, author of the book Wilding, attempted to answer this question in the second of our Book Salon series in partnership with Firmdale Hotels. The balmy summer evening saw guests gather in the vibrantly stylish grandeur of Ham Yard Hotel’s Drawing Room. Guests waited in anticipation to hear how Tree is attempting to reverse the threat of deforestation and industrialisation that has endangered more than one in 10 of the UK’s wildlife species.
Seated on quirky armchairs and colourful sofas, indicative of designer Kit Kemp’s witty interior style, the audience was whisked away to the enchanting wilderness of Knepp Castle Estate in the South East of England, where tourists go on wildlife safaris, ecologists giddily gather to count butterflies, and airbnbers can stay in romantic treehouses. Fifteen years ago, Knepp farm was rigorously and fruitlessly farmed, according to the standard and accepted methods of aggressive intervention, chemical warfare, and genetically modified stock and seed. After years of operating at a loss, Tree and her husband abandoned traditional farming in 2001, and have since allowed their 3500-acre estate to be reclaimed by the will of nature.
Despite being located in Sussex, beneath the Gatwick stacking system and ensnared by dual carriageways, Knepp has steadily become a haven for a whole gamut of wildlife, exciting ecologists and proving that the land can recover its biodiversity in a relatively short amount of time. While British farms of all sizes rely on EU subsidies to survive, Tree’s experiment has shown that letting go of farming ideals, forgoing control and eliminating massive overheads can result in a profitable farm that looks and behaves like wilderness.
During the talk, Isabella showed us stunning footage of her land and recounted anecdotes of the new arrivals to their West Sussex home: choirs of nightingales, kaleidoscopes of Purple Emperor butterflies, the drumming of woodpeckers, the flutter of 13 out of the UK’s 17 bat species, cooches of cuckoos, and the 23 species of dung beetle which her scarab-loving husband once found in a cow pat. Perhaps most impressively of all, turtle doves have returned from the festive land of partridges in pear trees and milking maids in which they had lived on during their rapid population decline, with now around 30 pairs inhabiting Knepp.
With only 100 harvests left in British farm soil before complete agricultural failure, and the reality that Brexit will limit access to farm subsidies it is evident that something has to be done, and ‘re-wilding’ seems like a sensible (and exciting) option. Whether this means turning over little pockets of land to nature or allowing your garden to become a ‘corridor’ for wildlife, it is time, as Isabella warns, to shake off our Victorian obsession with tidying up and learn how to live with something freer. But don’t take our word for it – get yourself a copy of Wilding and read about Isabella’s miraculous experiment.