Let’s Go Wild – Isabella Tree

8 May

Isabella Tree’s event, on her book Wilding, was all set for a cosy evening at Lower Shaw Farm’s ‘centre’, with forty or so people, cups of tea and talk of restoring a bit of balance back to the countryside.

However, the allocated tickets sold out. More were made available, and they sold too. There was no choice but shift the venue to the cowshed, with seating for a hundred. Still the tickets sold… benches were added, and more chairs dragged from all corners. By the time the talk was about to start, the cowshed was packed tighter than a, well, than a cowshed. An intensively farmed cowshed. And that’s where Isabella Tree comes in.

Isabella Tree in the Lowers Shaw Farm cowshed © Fernando Bagué

To the beautiful ‘purring’ sound of the dwindling-in-number Turtle Dove, Isabella began her talk describing the terrible demise of flora and fauna species in the UK, as modern, ‘efficient’ farming methods have caused the wholesale transformation of the landscape. Since the intensive ‘Dig for Victory’ approach to using land for food growth, straight lines and mile after mile of ploughed fields have become the norm, and numbers of native species have plummeted. The Turtle Dove alone has gone from 125,000 breeding pairs in the 1960s, to the verge of extinction today.

Isabella and her husband, Sir Charles Burrell (10th Baronet), inherited the Knepp Castle Estate in Sussex, with a castle designed by Regency architect John Nash, plus 350,000 acres of farmland. But despite the apparent family wealth, the tale of Isabella’s book, Wilding, is not one of privilege and self-importance. On the contrary, it is a tale of self-admitted struggle, grim determination, combined with immense foresight and courage. However wonderful a castle and vast tracts of land might sound, the burden they bring is substantial. Especially when the muddy quagmire of the estate’s farm is in freefall failure.

With unfailing optimism, the couple tried for years to make the farm work, using modern agricultural business practices: the very best machinery, cost-saving efficiencies everywhere, expensive chemicals, modern breeds of cattle, and even the production of ice cream. But none of it made any difference, and the farm slid into ever greater debt.

It was in this spirit that the pair took the incredibly brave decision to listen to a Dutch Environmentalist, Frans Vera, and change their whole approach: stop fighting with the land, and just go along with it instead. So, fences ripped up, Victorian drainage destroyed, modern equipment sold off, and then the introduction of free-roaming longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, and Roe, Red and Fallow deer, all emulating to the ancient species which once lived in this countryside.The experiment had begun.

Isabella then went on to tell the audience just how the experiment had unfolded since. Over the last twenty years, the estate has transformed into a rich, beautiful landscape with every type of flora and fauna we can imagine. Huge numbers of species have moved into this newly created ‘perfect’ environment, including: insects not seen in the area for years, such as dung beetles in their droves and stunning butterflies like the Purple Emperor; birds of every shape and size, with all British species of owl present, Peregrine Falcons nesting in the trees, and more Turtle Doves than can be counted across the entirety of the National Trust’s lands. On top of this, the cattle, horses, pigs and deer run free, with no drugs and no penning up; a huge source of truly free range and supremely organic meat.

The ‘wilding’ of the Knepp estate is a living demonstration of how landowning systems that have existed for generations are no longer right for our country, or our planet, and of how a return to more natural methods can bring huge dividends. Of course, things are never that simple. Given the relentless requirements of modern, overcrowded life, it is hard to imagine a world where this approach could become the norm, even as part of a long-term, rotational system, where other types of farming exist alongside this more natural approach. But it does give a glimmer of hope.

And there is something else too. Isabella wound up her stimulating and inspiring talk with the word ‘psychobiology’. In essence, the effect that the new world she and Charlie have created has on them as people. In modern parlance, the feel-good factor of nature. Given that Isabella’s book has been shortlisted for the Richard Jefferies Society & White Horse Bookshop Literary Award for Nature Writing, it seems fitting to add the words of Swindon’s original environmentalist, Richard Jefferies, from Round About A Great Estate: “Now this great strength was not the result of long and special training, or, indeed, of any training at all; it came naturally from outdoor life.”

And we don’t need a castle and a huge farm to be part of this. Let’s stop calling wild flowers weeds; let our grass grow a little bit longer; get out and enjoy our world a bit more frequently. As Isabella Tree says : “Forget the neat lines of the countryside, it is time to get messy again. Re-wilding the planet starts with re-wilding ourselves.”

Chronicler Mike Pringle (with book) talks to Isabella

Words by Mike Pringle (in above photo, middle with book), photos © Fernando Bagué.

Isabella Tree appeared at the Swindon Spring Festival, at Lower Shaw Farm, 6 May 2019, discussing the subject of her book, Wilding.

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