Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
The 3,500 acre Knepp estate in West Sussex, which dates from the 12th Century, has belonged to the same family since 1787, and in 1987 the author’s husband inherited it from his grandparents, who had run it as a farm, with arable crops and a dairy herd. By then, however, it had ceased to be a profitable enterprise. And despite all efforts to intensify and diversify production it continued to lose money, and was still doing so as the Millennium ticked over.
At that point, the couple made a big decision. Already aware of the environmental impoverishment that intensive farming had caused, they decided to embark on a bold venture, which was to discontinue dairying, sell the herd and equipment to get themselves out of debt, contract out the arable sections of the property and return the rest to Nature. Their first step was to apply for funding, under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, to restore the section of the estate which had formerly been designed as a park.
The aim of the CSS was to improve the environmental values of farmland throughout Britain, so they were a good fit for it. The initial step they took in that process was to return the land to its original ‘unimproved’ state, first by ploughing it, letting it lie a while and then skimming off the resultant growth to reduce the level of nitrates and phosphates that had been added in previous years to increase crop yields. Then they spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers all over it.
The result was surprisingly fast—and spectacular. Wildflowers bloomed and by summer the air was filled with the thrumming of insect life and the music of birdsong.
Further successes followed. With further funding, they were gradually able to tear down established fences and re-wild more sections of the property. And in order to replicate the ancient ecosystem as best they could, they introduced grazing and browsing species—deer, free-roaming cattle and ponies—and those avid gardeners, pigs. (Except that in lieu of the original wild boar who would once have roamed this land they used Tamworth pigs.)
I learned a lot of new things from this beautifully written and informative book. For one thing, most of us were brought up to believe that this country was once covered in thick forest, …was Britain in the pre-Neolithic, Atlantic era, about 7,000 years ago, closed-canopy forest? asks Tree. Or was it a more open landscape, a mosaic of grassland, scrubland, groves and solitary trees, grazed by large numbers of herbivores? Correctly identifying Britain’s ecological past was clearly fundamental to considering how conservation should proceed in the future. The answer, she explains, lies in the oak trees. Oak seedlings cannot survive in the gloom of a closed canopy forest. They need more open land, with scrub species as nursemaid trees. Given that setting, jays will obligingly plant oaks. As she tells us: A single jay can plant over 7,500 acorns in four weeks. At Knepp, as the re-wilding proceeded, oak trees started popping up here and there all over the estate.
Another key lesson this book teaches us is to be open-minded and let Nature lead the way. Humans have altered so much of the landscape that other creatures have been forced to adapt to the changes. Today’s birds, crowded out by humans, have a limited choice of nesting places but the mistake we make is to use their decisions as a guideline when reintroducing species to a new area Better by far to plant a wide range of trees and bushes and see what happens. At Knepp, where birds have had a much wider choice, there have been many surprises. There have been shocks too—like sudden eruptions of so-called ‘weed’ species. And yet Nature deals neatly with those also, by sending in a corresponding influx of creatures, e.g. butterflies, to feast on them. Balance is always restored.
The wonderful news—and the proof of the pudding—is that now, the Knepp estate is fully re-wilded and heaving with wildlife, so much so that it has now become an eco-tourism destination. Even really rare species, such as turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are breeding there. All in less than two decades. If only we could do the same with the rest of the country!!
This book is a delight to the heart. Recommended.