We spoke with Isabella Tree about her book Wilding and the Knepp experiment, the pioneering rewilding project she runs in West Sussex with her husband, the environmentalist Charlie Burrell, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife.
Safaris at Knepp
TEXT SUMMARY OF THE INTERVIEW:
Isabella Tree: The story of wilding really is our story, is the story of what happened on our estate over the last 20 years. We inherited three and a half thousand acres, my husband and I in West Sussex, in South East of England from his grandparents in the 1980s. And it was intensive, arable and dairy. It was already a failing enterprise when we took it on. With the sort of arrogance of youth, we just assumed that it was his grandparents who hadn’t been investing in infrastructure and didn’t know what the latest technologies had been making the farming business fail.
Isabella Tree: We did everything a good farmer is supposed to do conventionally. And after 17 years, our overdraft was higher than ever. I think we were one and a half million pounds in debt by that stage. And we knew we couldn’t go on. The problem we realized by 1999 was our soil. We are on very marginal land. It’s grade 3, grade 4 in agricultural terms. It’s very heavy clay like porridge in winter. As hard as concrete in summer.
Isabella Tree: And we just could not farm this land. We couldn’t be competitive.
Isabella Tree: Selling wasn’t an option for us because this estate has been in the family for over 250 years.
Isabella Tree: We wanted to do something that was going to work with the land rather than battling against it all the time. And it was in the year 2000, the year after we decided to give up in hand farming and we sold our lovely dairy herds and we sold our farm machinery and cleared our debts. We met the amazing Dutch ecologist Frans Vera.
Isabella Tree: His ideas about free roaming animals and allowing them to drive habitat creation in the landscape, we thought might be an amazing experiment to try on our land.
Isabella Tree: They were growing very stagy and dying back, these lovely 300, 400, 500 year old oaks because of what we were doing underneath them. We were endlessly plowing the endless chemical inputs with and pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, everything. We were chocking on the soil. And these trees were suffering. And I think that was an epiphany. We suddenly realized that these beautiful old trees that we looked out on to every day were dying, beginning to die. And it was because of what we were doing to the soil beneath them.
Isabella Tree: A lot of people who come and see rewilding project say it reminds them of Africa. There’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like it left in the British landscape.
Isabella Tree: And the key thing is these free roaming animals. In a sense, they’re proxies of the animals that would have been in our landscape before. Obviously, we don’t have the Aurochs the ancestor of the ox anymore. We don’t have the tarpan, the original horse. But these animals would have been in huge herds roaming Europe and Britain. So we can use their descendants as proxies and that’s what we’ve done is we’ve put in low numbers.
Isabella Tree: And so these animals are interacting constantly with the vegetation. The battle between their disturbance. The way they rule and trample, the way they browse and graze. And of course, the dung, the disturbance with their hooves, the way they trample the margins of the watery areas, the way they did bark trees and break branches. All that interaction with the vegetation is what stimulates these amazing marginal, messy fringe habitats, which is rocket fuel for biodiversity.
Isabella Tree: What you want is that clash between animal disturbance and the thorny scrub, the vegetation succession coming up, and then you get this landscape that looks like Africa. But actually it also looks like a lot of medieval Europe would have looked like in the past. So centuries ago, you’ve got big open grown oaks. You’ve got the new generation of oaks coming up through the thorny scrub, protected by the thorns from browsing. And then you’ve got open grazed areas, areas where for some reason the animals prefer to graze.
Isabella Tree: Everything bleeding into each other in a kind of kaleidoscope of very dynamic, shifting landscape. It’s very exciting, but it’s very unfamiliar to the modern eye.
Isabella Tree: We’ve got all these incredibly rare species. So in a period of just 20 years, we’ve gone from being one of the most native depleted landscapes you can imagine, a virtual biological desert to being one of the most significant areas for nature in Britain. So if it can happen on our land, you know, in busy south east of England, underneath the Gatwick stacking system, it can happen anywhere.
Isabella Tree: So it was a lesson for us very early on. I think in our project where we describe species as wanting to be in modern times is not necessarily where they want to be. We forget that we’re looking at them in such a depleted environment that they’re often just clinging on to places by their fingernails. They’re in places where they’re only just managing to survive. But what rewilding offers you is you’re not targeting particular species, because you’re just waiting to see what turns up. Nature reveals itself to you. So these species suddenly come flooding into areas that you wouldn’t ever have imagined them wanting to be and they suddenly succeed. They do incredibly well.
Isabella Tree: We’d much rather be self-sufficient and entirely stand on our own feet. So at the moment, we have a very healthy income stream from our meat.
Isabella Tree: We also have now an eco tourism business and that’s been very exciting. We’ve had so many people wanting to come and visit Knepp and that because of our extraordinary wildlife successes that we thought, why should people have to travel the ends of the earth to see wildlife?
Isabella Tree: Absolutely, I mean, it runs complete in counter to everything that we know, we as farmers have been taught for decades and decades. We took completely the other side of the coin. So it’s going to be incredibly painful and incredibly shocking.
Isabella Tree: Yes, so we’re just beginning to realize that large herbivores are keystone species and they can kickstart the dynamism. It’s almost like that. They inject the dynamism back into landscape again by creating habitat.
Isabella Tree: I think that a lot of it is down to aesthetics. Changing the way we think our landscapes should look like. And it’s really about learning how to be messy again, to stop being a kind of, you know, that sort of Victorian corseted, control freak that we are and to let go. And I think human beings find that very difficult to do. So in a sense, I think rewilding, you know, it comes down to aesthetics again and it is about a mindset and about learning how to rewild ourselves.
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