Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

23 thoughts on “Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

  1. Sounds like a keeper, Mick. I think the same thing is happening with soils and pesticides. We’ve changed the landscape so that it’s almost unrecognizable to the critters. I hope that we return to health someday.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I hope farmers are reading this, a lot to take in, but how complex is land, environment and creatures that depend upon it in different ways. I am laughing at the thought of those mega fauna trying to plough their way through dense forest, how little most of us know about our country.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t have any data, but it’s my understanding that, certainly in the UK, more and more farmers are coming on board with these ideas. What must help, of course, is a farm where they have changed to a much more environmentally friendly way of farming and found their yields improve, then word gets around.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I always admire writers who research and write about ecological issues but I’m certain with farming there are too many variations in soil health and individual crop needs to make blanket statements about what will work. I’m not sure about England but I’m in California and what will work for farmers in Southern California will not work in the North and so the issue is always under debate. But thankfully, it is a topic for debate.

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    1. Indeed. There are clearly likely to be ecological differences between different areas, yet the principle should remain the same. Allowing two different areas to partially rewild will result in different habitats favouring different organisms, yet both should benefit from a more natural system developing, allowing the soils to recover and the natural pollinators and insect predators to thrive again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, it’s a great book, widely researched and well written. I wrote a post about Knepp in the spring. I’ve persuaded several others to buy copies of the book too, All are agreed this is one of the most important ways ahead for restoring our natural environment. I follow news of wildlife sightings at Knepp with interest. including one of the cuckoos tagged there called ‘Knepp’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Richard. I went and looked at your post, and a few others, and left a comment on one. It is an important book, I feel, and I am encouraged that there are more and more farmers and landowners who now believe that an environmentally friendly approach to land husbandry is the way forward.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Not a site I have visited yet but, from a butterflying point of view, Knepp has the largest concentration of Purple Emperors in the Country. A butterfly know as a dweller of woods and forests it appears to prefer this more open habitat!

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