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RIWPS bookworms are invited to read Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm, by Isabella Tree, for a Zoom discussion. Settle in with your favorite cup of tea and a cookie or two, to see old and new friends and talk about a good book.
Twenty years ago, Tree and her husband Charles Burrell, were nearing bankruptcy trying to continue farming a 3,500-acre family estate in West Sussex, England, land depleted and poisoned by half a century of chemical agriculture. It may come as a surprise to learn that Britain’s lush hedgerows and meadows have largely disappeared, along with its spreading oaks and turtle doves, as arable land has been cleared for industrial farming. Between the beginning of World War II and the 1990s, Tree writes, England lost 75,000 miles of hedgerows. Species loss has paralleled habitat destruction: 250,000 turtle doves in Britain in the 1960s, have dwindled to fewer than 5,000. The UK has lost 40 million birds since 1966. Such figures are a stark revelation – that England, so long an inspiration to gardeners and nature lovers — is suffering from the same sickness as the U.S.
Knepp Castle Estate, which harks back to the 12th century, came into the Burrell family in the late 18th century. At first, Tree writes, the young couple continued the family’s intensive agriculture model, but no amount of innovation or exhaustive work brought a profit. Still, it was the oaks on the ancient estate that inspired change.
One day in 1999, a local tree expert assessed the oaks and explained that ploughing and compaction, as well as farm chemicals, were destroying the trees’ roots and mycorrhizae. Their part in killing the trees came as an epiphany. Tree and Burrell took serious stock, of not just their finances, but the sad state of nature on the estate.
Wilding tells the story of a radical act: simply standing back to let nature recover the land. As clouds of butterflies, grasshoppers and bumblebees thrive in the fields of ox-eye daisies, red clover and countless other English species, so too, do the song birds, hawks and owls. Fallow deer, which have grazed English parkland for more than 115,000 years, are brought in to keep down the grass, bramble and scrub. So too, are free-roaming grazing animals — old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs — to do what the aurochs (wild ox) wisent (European bison) and wild boar did as they ate and pawed and rooted their way across the ancient landscape.
Wilding is a page-turner for many reasons. Tree has a novelist’s ability to tell the story. But she also has a mind for science, history and politics, adeptly weaving just the right piece of information into the tale, to place Knepp Castle in the larger world.
Wilding may be difficult to find in public library, but order it from your local bookstore or online.