INTERVIEW BY JENNIFER O’MAHONY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLIE BURRELL
From the vantage point of the Knepp Castle Estate, travel journalist Isabella Tree speaks with writer Jennifer O’Mahony on the unexpected success of rewilding one of the most biodiverse spots in England—and its symbolic connection to the world’s current crises.
At the height of Europe’s coronavirus lockdown, social media was awash with images of animals taking advantage of empty streets and parks. Goats snacked on gardens in Welsh towns. Peacocks wandered through the streets of Madrid. Dolphins, usually scared away from Istanbul’s main waterway by marine traffic, returned to the city banks of the Bosphorus to frolic in peace. From the vantage point of one of the most biodiverse spots in England, travel journalist Isabella Tree has watched wildlife reclaim these spaces with delight.
“Our dysfunctional relationship with nature caused the problem of this pandemic in the first place, and it’s symptomatic of what’s happening everywhere in the world,” Tree said, referring to the wildlife markets of Wuhan where the virus is believed to have infected its first human victim. “But it’s also an opportunity.”
She knows more than most about seizing the chance to rehabilitate our exhausted environment. Released in 2018, her book Wilding popularized the idea of rewilding in Britain. Rewilding advocates believe that managing green spaces as little as possible will kickstart natural processes for flora and fauna to thrive. Her book was a call to arms for conservationists to allow nature to do the work of healing itself, she tells Atmos, and has taken on a new urgency in our epidemic age.
Around the turn of the millennium, Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell were in crisis. Burrell had spent 15 years gradually intensifying dairy and arable farming at Knepp, the family’s 1,400-hectare (3,500-acre) estate in West Sussex, England. He had sold off his grandparents’ old-breed Red Poll cattle in favor of more productive dairy cows and bought new machinery to milk them faster. Wheat and barley were sprayed with fungicides and pesticides, and the boggy clay soil plow to within an inch of its life. Despite increasing crop yields, record milk production and a line of artisanal ice creams, Burrell and Tree were drowning in debt, and ignoring a clear double standard in their approach to nature. “My husband and I would travel the ends of the earth to see wonderful wildlife. We campaigned against deforestation in the Amazon or damming of crucial rivers like the Yangtze,” she recalled. “And we never once realized what we were doing ourselves by plowing our own land and polluting the soil and the water courses and depleting habitat for wildlife.”
When Tree had a chance meeting with a tree expert (delightfully named Ted Green), he told her that ploughing their land was killing oak trees dating back to the Middle Ages. Perhaps the couple would consider a government scheme compensating farmers who restored landscaped parkland, Green told them, identifying an area at the heart of their estate.
When Tree had a chance meeting with a tree expert (delightfully named Ted Green), he told her that plowing their land was killing oak trees dating back to the Middle Ages. Perhaps the couple would consider a government scheme compensating farmers who restored landscaped parkland, Green told them, identifying an area at the heart of their estate.
The rewilding of Knepp began with these 350 acres of land, which were sown with a seed mix of native local grasses and wildflowers. By the following summer, their farm, alive but barely able to sustain itself without artificial help, was transformed by the buzzing of insects. In later years, the melodies of songbirds would ring out across wildgrass. This unexpected success would set the stage for a gradual letting go of the whole farm, while watching nature breathe new life into the scarred soil and suffering trees. “From being one of the most depleted pieces of land, typical depleted agricultural land in southeast England, we are now one of the most significant areas for nature in Britain,” Tree recounted proudly. They no longer plow any of their land, and are fully committed to intervening as little as possible in the natural regeneration of their area, bar reintroducing certain species. They still raise cattle for an organic meat business.
Today at Knepp, species considered almost extinct in the rest of the U.K., such as nightingales and turtle doves, visit specifically to breed in the calm, luscious surroundings. The black stork, one of the rarest birds in Western Europe, is occasionally spotted, and the estate is now home to Britain’s largest population of purple emperor butterflies.
One in ten species overall is threatened with extinction, and 40 million fewer birds flap through British skies than in the 1960s, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Although the British consider themselves nature lovers, Tree pointed out, the country has already lost the majority of its wild spaces. England, the worst affected region, has less than one percent of its land conserved for nature. One in ten species overall is threatened with extinction, and 40 million fewer birds flap through British skies than in the 1960s, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Tree believes a shift is underway from “that sort of nostalgic idea of the picture postcard, organized, micromanaged, neat hedge rows, thinking that it’s pretty, to understanding that it’s not functioning and that something is wrong and lacking.” Manicured is out and wild is in.
Another way in which the coronavirus may act as a tipping point is by forcing farmers to pay more attention to conservation in the looming form of Brexit, which will untie Britain from the European Union (EU)’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP awards rafts of subsidies to European farmers for overproducing grain, while depleting their land. Tree voted to remain in the EU, but is now looking forward to “serious reform which the environment will benefit from,” she said. “If we were going to go back into Europe tomorrow, I have to say I would feel very nervous about losing this opportunity.” British farmers will now likely be compensated for contributing to the “public good” rather than just for what they produce.
Regardless of future reforms, Knepp already offers a model of self-sufficiency for farmers stuck in the subsidy system. The estate produces 70 tons of beef, pork, and venison a year. “It’s highly profitable because there are no inputs,” Tree explained. As the animals wander freely and eat whatever they please, there are no shelters to maintain, no feed to buy, and very low veterinary bills. The other income streams at Knepp come from former farm buildings transformed into office space, and eco-tourism, including safaris.
Among the many unexpected successes of Knepp, Tree also has a successful track record of converting vegans back into meat eaters. “People have actually come to us and said, I haven’t eaten meat for 20 years. But my objections have been blown out of the water by what you do,” she recounted. The conservationist is not against veganism, per se, but wishes plant-based diets were better scrutinized by vegans for their own potentially damaging effects. “If you’re looking at alternatives to drinking cow’s milk, almond milk is probably one of the most destructive things you could possibly buy, and involves huge desertification of areas,” she noted. “The almond trees are hugely thirsty for water. They’re often in very unsustainable areas and involve a huge amount of pesticides. And rice milk, well, rice is, again, quite an unsustainable crop.” Grazing animals are “part of the nutrient cycle, part of the water cycle, part of the carbon cycle,” she emphasized.
Over the last few months, many of us have reconnected with nature in the way that Tree has been preaching for years. Watching animals wandering through unfamiliar spaces offers a “feeling that nature is bouncing back,” she noted. Like Tree, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg also sees the coronavirus as a tipping point for the environment, asserting in April: “The world has changed; it looks completely different from how it did a few months ago.” Citizens and governments should “choose a new way forward”, Thunberg said. Many are now hoping the coronavirus will reset the climate debate in favor of bold conservation measures, as the markers for “impossible” have fallen one by one. Tree and the Knepp project offer one way forward—and the rest is now up to us.