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Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp in West Sussex was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Once-common species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells’ degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.

This recovery has taken place against a backdrop of catastrophic loss elsewhere. According to the 2016 ‘State of Nature’ report, the UK is ranked 29th in the world for biodiversity loss: 56% of species in the UK are in decline and 15% are threatened with extinction. We are living in a desert, compared with our gloriously wild past.

In Wilding, Isabella Tree tells the story of the ‘Knepp experiment’ and what it reveals of the ways in which we might regain that wilder, richer country. It shows how rewilding works across Europe; that it has multiple benefits for the land; that it can generate economic activity and employment; how it can benefit both nature and us – and that all of this can happen astonishingly quickly. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, Wilding is, above all, an inspiring story of hope.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published May 3, 2018

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Isabella Tree

14 books108 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 959 reviews
Profile Image for Anna.
1,682 reviews634 followers
June 13, 2018
There probably isn’t any higher praise for ‘Wilding’ than to say that, upon finishing it, I wholeheartedly wished I could buy a farm and let it turn into a wildlife haven. The story of a rewilded Sussex farm reminded me how grateful I am to have been taught by my parents to notice and appreciate wildlife. (Even though as a child I often complained about being dragged away from my books to see a meadow of orchids.) The aptly named Isabella Tree recounts how she and her husband abandoned intensive farming, which was losing them vast amounts of money despite subsidies, and switched to encouraging biodiversity. It’s an amazing story, as the rewilding has been much more successful than anyone dared to hope. Successive chapters joyfully recount the mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, fungi, and plants that sprung up once given the chance. I found this detailed case study more uplifting than George Monbiot’s Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, although I enjoyed that very much, as it demonstrates so specifically how well rural biodiversity can bounce back from a monoculture. It also suggests that the agricultural sector can evolve to support rather than undermine the environment. Tree is evangelistic about the approach she took - and justifiably so.

Of particular interest is the detailed explanation of challenges and difficulties that the project faced, some practical (how to move wild deer), some institutional (Natural England were wary), some cultural (local objections to the ‘mess’ and ‘waste’ compared to arable land), and some philosophical (allowing control of the land to lapse). Tree devotes time and careful discussion to the academic theories and popular perceptions that make rewilding especially hard to achieve in Britain, relative to other parts of Europe; George Monbiot also observed this peculiar tendency. Defining ‘wildness’ is fraught with difficulty, as is deciding which species have lived here long enough to be considered ‘native’. I found the argument that Britain was not covered in closed-canopy forest during pre-history convincing, as well as useful. Tree also points out (as I’d recently read in this Citylab article) that the changing climate is forcing species to relocate, so rather than try to replicate the past we should allow wild space to accommodate whatever species can find a niche. In short, stop over-managing for the sake of single species and instead interfere as little as possible. Counter-intuitive in such a heavily managed landscape as Britain, yet the results are incredible.

I was particularly struck by this commentary on shifting baseline syndrome within living memory:

We were familiar with the usual reaction from our own generation, the forty-to-sixty-somethings. Children of the agricultural revolution were aghast at what we were doing. The twenty-somethings were often more responsive. For them the idea of national food security, of digging for victory, was an anxiety from a bygone age. [...]

But the real surprise came from the oldest generation. Those in their eighties could remember the agricultural depression between the wars, when marginal land across the country had been abandoned… To them, clumps of dog rose and hawthorn, thickets of hazel and sallow - even swathes of ragwort - were not offensive at all. The landscape recalled them, instead, to their childhood ramblings in a countryside heaving with insects and birds, to the days when there was a covey of grey partridges in every field. There was nothing threatening or alarming in what they were seeing. Quite the reverse. To some, it was positively beautiful. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” one old boy berated his son - a baby during the war - who insisted that what they were seeing was “unnatural”. “This is how the countryside always used to look!”

I hope that in the future more of it looks this way. As a child in East Anglia, I remember vast fields of oilseed rape, with isolated snippets of uncultivated land sheltering wild species. How much more diverse, useful, and beautiful the countryside could be if our values and perceptions of land use shifted a little. The possibilities of rewilding are spectacular and I can only hope this book inspires other farmers to give it a try.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books8,100 followers
April 12, 2019
Fascinating, wonderful and hopeful. The author and her baronet husband, unable to survive as Sussex farmers, give up and turn the land back to the wild. The resulting explosion of wildlife is enough to raise the hairs on your arms. Britain's biodiversity is awful, our bird and insect populations are crashing, but it could be saved if people cared to do it. The stubborn human resistance and selfishness shown here is enraging.

To note: fallow land can be a massive carbon sink and flood plains and other wetlands, er, absorb water. We don't need to build hugs concrete walls, we need the land to do its thing. And it is also a massive mistake to try to create habitats we think will suit rare species because as Knepp has shown we often misinterpret what those are given so many of these species are hanging on at the margins. We need to make space.

This is inspiring in the extreme, except also incredibly depressing because this stupid insular country and its obsession with keeping nature neat. My neighbour puts out bird seed but takes a petrol chainsaw to the ivy on his back fence. The ivy on my back fence has birds nesting in it every year.

A wonderful book, extremely detailed and highly informative. In the event I become supreme leader the first step is clear.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews637 followers
July 12, 2019
Surrendering the management of nature to nature…

I think that sometimes when people write “This is an important book” what they mean is “Finally I have found a book that agrees with me.” At the risk of falling into that trap, I’m going to start by saying this is an important book.

When Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell realised that it was not economically feasible to continue their farming of land in Knepp, West Sussex, they made a bold and radical decision: they decided to step away from the land and watch as nature took over. This book describes the almost twenty years of that project/experiment. The results are staggering and challenge some fundamental assumptions that often guide even the most well-meaning of conservation or ecological decisions.

The author has seen incredible changes to the environment over the years. Whole chapters of this book are dedicated to the “glamour species” that have returned to the land - the nightingale, the turtle dove, the purple emperor. But it is the less glamorous creatures sitting low down in the food chain that are, for me, the real stars of the book.

The book begins and ends with the soil. During the WWII, Britain faced severe food shortages and the only way to survive was to increase food production somehow. So began intensive farming which increased yields and enabled the country to survive those war years. When the war finished, however, the country did not return to the pre-war methods, but rather intensified the the pressure on the land to produce more and more at cheaper and cheaper cost. Today, the cost of food takes a remarkably low percentage of our income compared with previous generations. But we pay for this in other ways. There is scientific evidence to suggest that food quality has dropped significantly, even to levels that could explain the apparent sudden rise in things like lactose intolerance or other allergies: there could be more of this around nowadays because the products themselves have altered in response to the intensive farming methods used to increase yields. Isabella Tree would argue, I think, that this pursuit of higher yields has gone beyond the point where it is self-defeating: we apply more and more pressure to the land to produce more when the reason it does not is because of all the pressure we have already applied that has damaged it.

What happens when you remove that pressure and let the land recover? It takes time (something we are notably not prepared to give much of in our modern world), but it turns out that nature is remarkable. What happens challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the land. There is a thing in ecology, or at least in this book, called “shifting-baseline syndrome” and this refers to the fact that often the baseline for a project, the goal it sets out to achieve, is derived from data that consistently gets more and more recent i.e. the baseline gradually includes more and more of the effect that the project is aiming to counter. We make wrong assumptions: as the book points out, we label nightingales and purple emperor butterflies as “woodland” creatures because that is here we see them, but, if we stop interfering and watch what nature does, we learn that they are not really creatures of that environment. Once you begin to learn things like this, the whole basis of many conservation projects is called into question (should we really be micro-managing woodland environments to encourage the purple emperor butterfly when that butterfly would, left to itself, prefer to be somewhere else?).

Again and again, this book challenges the reader to think about the broader picture. I am not naive enough to think that there is not another side to the story and I am sure that there are farmers and farming scientists who can paint a different picture, but I did find the arguments in this book very compelling.

What will stay with me most after reading this book is the soil. The solution to many of the major environmental issues of our time might literally be the ground beneath our feet. Soil that is managed by nature rather than by man has a huge capacity for storing carbon. Letting nature manage nature has the potential to solve global warming. This is a staggering thought. As the book puts it

“The great concerns of our time - climate change, natural resources, food production, water control and conservation, and human health - all boil down to the condition of the soil.”

It is impossible to provide an adequate summary of this book. If you have any concern for the environment, for the world that we will leave to our children and grandchildren, then I would urge you to read it. Clearly, there is a limited amount that one person living in an urban environment can do to affect the national state of the land, but it does require individuals to make some decisions and this book is a huge encouragement to show you what could happen if enough people made those decisions and if government etc. supported that. Those are big ifs, but the longest journey starts with the first step.
Profile Image for Story.
858 reviews4 followers
February 21, 2022
In a world where almost all news about nature is painful and depressing, this hope-filled, fascinating and informative book is balm to the soul. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Kirsten McKenzie.
Author 10 books239 followers
January 5, 2019
This is probably the first book I've ever read where I consider it an honour that it exists for me to read.
The rewilding of Knepp Castle Estate should be a blueprint for every council, government, municipality, environmental organisation, livestock owner, farmer, consumer.
The words Isabella Tree uses to describe the journey from unprofitable farm, to a haven for endangered species and reintroduced species are magical. This book is not a heavy scientific tome but it contains enough information to make you question your purchasing decisions at the supermarket, and what you consider beautiful in the natural environment.
What to do from here? Pay more attention to local environmental initiatives, get involved. Don't just succumb to tree planting outings, because they aren't the answer.
This book has left me distraught, hopeful, happy, sad, angry and overjoyed at what can be achieved.
And if I had enough money to buy every Member of Parliament a copy, and the ability to force them to read it, I would.
So yes. this is my review. I loved it, and unlike me, I didn't skim read any passages. I absorbed every word.
The world can be saved, one farm and hedgerow at a time.
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews196 followers
July 4, 2019
Rewilding and ecological restoration narratives are still a very tiny genre of nonfiction, so I'm always excited to see a new one. Most of the reasons I love them are probably obvious: they're stories about nature that aren't just positive, but also proactive, progressive, and full of tantalizing hints of unexpected ecological mechanisms. The first half of this book does all of that pretty well. Unlike some of these books, there really isn't much memoir to it. The story Tree tells is about her land and their management decisions, largely made by expert advice and steering committee, and none of it feels especially personal.

The most interesting parts relate first to the broad debate about the role of mega fauna in European ecosystems, and second, the surprising cultural differences in expectations about farmers, farmland, and public access. Unsurprisingly, Tree and the Knepp project in general are heavily and directly influenced by the Vera school of European paleoecology. Thus, most of the interesting spontaneous effects they observe are the downstream effects of horse, cattle, pigs, and deer browsing, wallowing, distributing seeds, and pooping. Their land of course attracts new species of dung beetle, micromoth, fungi, etc., along with big flushes of weedy flowers and new recruitment of woody shrub species, and consequently settlement by birds and other animals that require those kinds of habitats. More interestingly, in several cases they find that highly threatened species in Britain flourished in new kinds of habitat different from their reported preference, suggesting these kinds of habitats are so rare that species which prefer it are only hanging on by living in suboptimal areas. Overall, it's just a pleasure to read about the unfolding of ecological processes, things difficult for most of us to observe, often entirely forgotten, exposing clear and intuitive gaps the way naturalists and conservationists often approach nature.

All of that is the core topic of the book. But the other interesting aspect was something so obvious to Tree that it took a while to dawn on me. She starts the story by describing her and her husband's efforts to intensively farm their land, winning awards and setting records for dairy production despite unfavorable heavy clay soil. And as she described that work, I was picturing their land as a dairy farm similar to the ones I grew up near: big, rural fields in the country, with a small farmhouse near the sheds and dairy barns on the road. So when they got their land fenced and introduced feral cows and pigs, it seemed fairly reasonable. It was only when she started talking about how conflicts with dog walkers limited their breed choices, and how the wild pigs tried to steal food for a wedding they were hosting, that I remembered just how different things are in Britain. Then she mentions the castle and it all fell into place.

The thing Tree never mentions is that her husband's family are traditional aristocrats, and the land they are rewilding is their estate. It was historically not just their productive land, but also the home of many tenant farmers. Their land is apparently shot through with roads and paths (it's unclear) maybe even houses and businesses? And as for the dog walkers, it's not just about the universal British law that anyone can traverse anybody's land whatever they want if they're taking a walk. The estate functioned as a kind of public park and event center for the whole community. On one hand, this makes what they're doing all the more valuable and interesting, but on the other hand, it casts a somewhat different light on the dynamic between them and the angry comments they get from the public. Either way, it seems like something that would have been worth explaining more explicitly, because afaik, even in the densely populated Netherlands, Oostvardersplassen was uninhabited before it was turned over to the wild animals. I'm not sure the degree of urban-rewilding integration here has a clear precedent.

The only problem with the book, and the reason I'm giving it three stars instead of four, is that in lieu of personal reflections, Tree pads the book with summaries of other pop science books she's read. These usually have some bearing on the topic at hand, but they're inevitably undermined by this third-hand, only-the-most-interesting-bits game of pop science telephone. They focus on individual rockstar scientists and doctors at the expensive nuanced discussions of relevant questions, and thus present exaggerated claims without context or challenge. And because I've read most of those books before, and learned enough about some of these issues to at least be aware of the nuance she is glossing over, it's often frustrating and always boring. At first it just feels like an extension of what she's done in paraphrasing things people like Frans Vera have said to her directly, about her land, but by the last few chapters it's gone totally off the rails and Knepp itself seems to slip out of the book entirely.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,573 followers
October 11, 2018
Knepp may be a familiar name if you follow British environmental news: it’s synonymous with what’s known as rewilding. Tree’s husband, Sir Charlie Burrell, inherited the estate in 1987 and tried running it as an intensified dairy farm, but the enterprise was bleeding money and in 2000 they gave up and let the land return to nature. That wasn’t a totally hands-off process, though; it involved restoring the forest and river ecosystems and reintroducing traditional species like fallow deer, Exmoor ponies, ancient-breed cattle and Tamworth pigs.

Over the years the health of the landscape has improved dramatically. Rare birds including turtledoves have settled and bred on the site, and the soil is now remarkably fertile. The book is more of a blow-by-blow of rewilding than I was after, with lots of historical and geographical information as background. I was expecting more of a straightforward memoir. It was thus more of a book for my ecologist husband (though he already knew a lot about Knepp and has been there twice).

Here’s the project in a nutshell: “Knepp is a casualty of a global process of extraordinary rises in agricultural productivity and the resulting abandonment of marginal land. … It is an opportunity for nature unprecedented in modern history – if only we can overcome our deepest prejudices about what our land should look like.”
Profile Image for Isabel Losada.
Author 27 books71 followers
July 5, 2018

Undoubtedly one the most important books that I've ever read. The simple illustration on the front of the beautiful cover perhaps deceiving the casual bookshop browser into not realising that this book is as important as it is. As well as the fact that within it are solutions that could do no less than save us all, and the planet for our children and our children's children - personally I found it hugely consoling. It consoles all of us that care about the environment and know what we have lost as well as, giving hope that we may be able to save ourselves.

Professionally (as I'm a narrative non-fiction writer myself) this is yet one more example of why I believe the publishing world would benefit from paying far more attention to non fiction of all kinds and end the singular hype around more and more young first time novelists. There is more genuine consolation for the soul in this book than in a dozen well written novels. Please give this book to anyone you know that is a struggling farmer or has land. And to everyone else as well. :-)

Thank you Isabella Tree for this outstanding work.
Profile Image for Nigeyb.
1,209 reviews266 followers
April 5, 2021
Wilding (2018) is Isabella Tree's account of how the Knepp estate in West Sussex changed from being a farm to a more natural environment. It's wonderful. Inspiring, informative and passionate. I learnt so much about how nature, left to its own devices, can transform an estate laid bare after decades of intensive agriculture into a rich, diverse ecosystem.

Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell have also introduced Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle, red deer and Tamworth pigs which are allowed to roam free on their aristocratic estate. The animals live out in the open all year round and give birth unassisted by humans. Numerous plants, including many rare ones, have returned together with trees, insects, bats and many other organisms. As the herbicides and pesticides of the farm disappear the habitats are regaining some equilibrium. Most surprising is the increase in the variety and abundance of birds including nightingales and turtle doves whose dwindling numbers have made them endangered.

Needless to say it has not all been plain sailing and Isabella details a plethora of issues. These include the response of their neighbours, the limited thinking and attitudes of some conservationists, the difficultly in getting funding, and the behaviour of some visitors to the estate. Nevertheless what ultimately emerges is a compelling and reasoned argument in favour of incentivising more landowners to give some of their land back to nature.


Profile Image for Paul.
2,133 reviews
November 18, 2018
Their land at Knepp in West Sussex had been farmed by them and the family before, for years, but it had reached the point where the farm had become unviable as a business. Not sure what to do with the land, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made that decision to let nature take over again. Fences were taken up and they selected some hardy breeds of pigs, Exmoor ponies and cattle to wander freely around the 3500 acres site.

Wildlife under the modern capitalist economies is taking an absolute pounding. A recent report says that we have lost 60% of our global wildlife and figures in the UK show this too; we are ranked 29th in the world for biodiversity loss: 56% of species are in decline and 15% are threatened with extinction. The species that we used to regularly see and hear are no longer around; when did you last hear a cuckoo?

Locals objected to several elements of what they were doing, ragwort was a particular issue with some people, but slowly the recovery began on their land. Species that had plummeted in the weald, begun to return. They were finding that they were suddenly one of the top sites in the country for creatures like purple emperor butterflies and turtle doves. With an abundance of invertebrates come predators and this rippled up until they realised that they peregrine falcons back. In fact, there were several species that had appeared that were not fitting in the niche that would normally be expected.

This inspirational book shows what can be achieved in just a decade, how we can regain a wilder country. Ensuring that we put things in place to support the natural world will make the world and our own lives a richer place. We can make some attempt to reverse the devastating trend even after a decade and whilst farms might not be able to implement all of what they have done, even some of these will have a marked improvement to our natural world.
Profile Image for Victoria (Eve's Alexandria).
664 reviews384 followers
April 6, 2019
It took me a long time to read this book and that’s because, well, I found it boring. Don’t get me wrong, the overall thrust of it - the rewilding of the Knepp estate and the extraordinary increase in biodiversity there - is fascinating. But the bulk of the book is not given over to recounting, describing or exploring the project. Instead it’s a repetitive exercise in justifying it, circling the same concepts and revisiting old arguments with Natural England and government representatives. I suppose it mismatched my expectations: I was hoping for writing about the natural world in England, about environmental degradation and how we can reverse or at least improve it. Instead this is a treatise on the reintroduction of wild herbivores.
Profile Image for Tania.
751 reviews66 followers
January 2, 2021
A wonderful, hope-filled project and a wonderful book. Towards the end she writes of her wish for white cranes to be nesting there, this year the first wild white crane chicks were hatched on the Knepp estate; the first in Britain for over 400 years.

I recently heard of a similar project planned not far away from me. Really exciting to see what comes of it.
Profile Image for Beth Bonini.
1,291 reviews278 followers
December 22, 2019
I can already say, with absolutely no hesitation, that this will be one of my books of the year. There is no book I’ve learned more from, or been more enthralled by reading. I say this as someone who has only a mild-to-middling interest in nature/environment/ecology issues, at least in terms of prior knowledge and depth of scientific understanding. Isabella Tree is a great storyteller who manages to convert quite a lot of technical information into a plot - a drama, even - which any reasonably intelligent and diligent reader can follow.

In brief, ‘Wilding’ recounts a 20 year project/experiment in letting nature restore the West Sussex soil which had been denuded by decades of conventional agricultural production. The book follows the ‘rewilding’ of the Knepp Estate in roughly chronological order, starting with some ailing oak trees, and every single chapter of the journey is fascinating. I learned so, so much, but my main takeaway is how beautifully and intricately interrelated every single process of the natural world is - and how perfectly it can rejuvenate itself if given half a chance. This book should be required reading, and I hope the lessons learned from it will impact agricultural and environmental policy for the coming decade. It is such a hopeful message in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Note: I saw Isabella Tree speak about the Knepp Estate experiment at the Slightly Foxed Readers’ Day on November 2, 2019.
Profile Image for Sarah Patton.
Author 1 book2 followers
July 14, 2018
Probably the best book I have read this year. I have been to Knepp on several occasions and spoken with both Isabella and Charlie and their passion for rewilding is amazing. They are also genuinely nice people.
This book really opened my eyes even more and I learned many things despite being an ecologist and life long conservationist. The chapter on soil and worms is especially thought provoking.
This is a MUST read!
97 reviews4 followers
May 4, 2018
An excellent book on the importance of recognising that modern agriculture needs to re-embrace the power of Nature in all aspects of how we live with our environment. From soil health, biodiversity and quality of the food we buy, the Knepp project shows a possible way forwards to ensure our long term health and point to a sustainable way of living with the land.
63 reviews1 follower
January 27, 2020
This book tells people who own 3500 acres of land and don’t need to earn a living how to make a difference to the planet
Profile Image for Lilian.
125 reviews5 followers
July 22, 2018
We bought this book at the end of our honeymoon visit to Knepp. I feel it's right to preface this by saying that I loved Knepp, and I'm already mentally planning my return visit. Nature is truly all around, even in the 'glamping' area of the site. Just a few footsteps away from the 'yoga garden', the air smelled as sweet as the very floral honey that is sold in the farm shop. We didn't see any of the large mammals, unfortunately, but we saw plenty of smaller insects, birds and the hint of a stoat. The larger animals, we heard. It was breathtaking.

Now the book. Isabella Tree writes a language as floral as the honey produced on the land, and I loved it. I found some messy sentences with missing words or clauses, or that seemed to suffer from having been poorly operated on during revisions, but my enjoyment of the book in spite of this is manifest in the fact that I managed to read it in three days. Three days of late nights spent reading. For context, I'm on my honeymoon. I'm literally honeymooning, as I type.

Content wise, the book is spot on. Reading it gave me some hope that we may be able to avert the crash course the mass of societal pressures and economic interests would have us follow. It was disheartening to read about the opposition that the project has faced, especially as I have read even recent comments about Alan Savoury's work that adamantly claim that such an approach cannot work. But it's also heartening to have seen the proof that it can work with my own eyes, and to know that at least some are willing to take this leap of faith. Despite other points of contention, no one visiting Knepp could say that grazing herbivores can only have a negative impact on the environments they live in, or that 'wildness' cannot exist in modern lives.

This is a seriously good book, about a seriously amazing place. Need I say more? No? Then, I'll return to my honeymoon!
Profile Image for Simon.
85 reviews
December 14, 2018
Not just my book of the year but I think the most enlightening book I have *ever* read in my, ahem, almost 50 years on earth. Reading how letting nature take its course and can heal the earth so rapidly, as well as allow wildlife we thought would soon be gone forever to absolutely thrive has been a real eye opener - I'm a farmers son and our family thinks we know a lot about nature, how it works and what we as humans need to do to help it. We know NOTHING! This book and the 20 years the Knepp estate has been allowed to find its own way shows there is no need to do anything other than have the guts to let nature take over and change our business practices accordingly.

This is a fantastic book, beautifully written and so full of interesting facts you are going to want to re-read it and/or jot down notes throughout. I've just bought the Kindle edition so I can make electronic notes and highlight sections I want without ruining the hard copy book I just finished.
Profile Image for Jill Bowman.
1,655 reviews11 followers
May 8, 2020
Absolutely fascinating book! I was barely into the book before my husband (also reading a book) asked me to please stop interrupting him by reading him passages out of Wilding. I spent a lot of time googling pictures and birdsong, looking on google maps at places I’d never heard of; Ive ordered 2 new books and followed 2 new IG pages. In short - I’ve learned a lot from a very interesting and well written book. If I were an English voter I’d definitely be on their side!!
I hope I get to visit some day. Several years ago a spent a night in a town VERY close to Knepp Castle Estate... I wish I’d known.
Profile Image for Peter.
Author 6 books15 followers
July 9, 2018
I was given this book, which I would never have considered buying, as a Father's Day gift. I am so grateful!
I know nothing about farming and next to nothing about conservation, but I was fascinated by this story of a family that turned their 3,500 acres of unprofitable intensive farmland, owned by ancestors for centuries, into a 'wilderness'. The book recounts the battles against local opposition to 'destruction' of the estate's perceived attractiveness, against blinkered bureaucracy and even against thoughtless dog owners. Along the way, we learn how Charlie and Isabella resisted the psychological pressure to set targets and manage the project, instead adopting a hands-off approach that let natural processes take over. The rapidity with which the land, the diversity of animal and plant life and the composition of the soil recovered is the natural miracle that lies at the story's core.
We are treated to the delights of recovering wildlife in dazzling and sometimes confusing variety. Sometimes the vocabulary is unfamiliar, but the meaning is almost always clear from the context. I wasn't familiar with the verb 'cover', for example, when appplied to a bull and cows. Not hard to work out.
The language is sometimes too florid for my taste. At times, I was itching to take out a copy editor's red pencil, to make sentences or passages clearer.
That said, there are genuine insights throughout the book. As well as the comments one might expect about food production and biodiversity, the author enhances the story of the project with significant comment about broader issues like climate change, child-rearing, public health, mental well-being and nutrition. I will stop and think, the next time I order a steak in a restaurant. Moreover, I was interested by the unusual perspective - unfashionable in egalitarian times - on the relationship between the 'landed gentry' and the land they own. Less about privilege, more about responsibility.
I learned, too, about the importance of reintroducing keystone species, ranging from pigs (as a substitute for the politically unacceptable wild boar), longhorn cattle (substituting for bison), roe and red deer, the beaver and even - perhaps especially - the humble earthworm. The explanations for the significance of these species gave a fascinating insight into animal behaviour.
Most of all, this is a crucially important book. It should turn our view of the way we live on its head. It is both a disheartening look at our failure to husband the natural resources and processes with which we have been blessed and at the same time a hopeful sign of the benefits of 'letting nature take its course'.
Profile Image for D.A. Holdsworth.
Author 3 books47 followers
February 27, 2023
This is a landmark publication. There are good books, great books - and books that actually change things.

This is one of the latter.

There is a gathering trend in the UK for 'wilding' or re-wilding - returning agricultural landscapes to nature in a (mostly) hands-off way. This is a major and refreshing change from the control-freak, focus-on-a-few-species approach that dominated post-war conservation thinking. This change presumably - surely - started with this book and with what the author and her husband undertook at their farm in West Sussex.

Before I started reading it, I knew the author had a good story to tell of what her family had been doing at Knepp Castle since the early noughties. What particularly impresses though is, firstly, how extremely well written it is. By turns poetic or polemical, according to the topic in hand. And, secondly, how profoundly knowledgeable the author is. About wildlife of course - the turtle doves, the nightingales, the purple emperors and Dartmoor ponies. But so many other areas too. Whether stepping carefully through the thirty different terms for 'mud' in the old Sussex dialect, or wading waist-deep into the various academic debates in ecological circles surrounding 'vegetation succession' and the role of large grazing herbivores in pre-agrarian Europe - the author is an unfailingly articulate and clear-sighted guide.

It's hard not to feel by the end of the book that fate called this couple to this task. Her husband is a baronet and graduate of Cirencester agricultural college - not someone who can be easily dismissed as a hippy conservationist. While she (long before this book) was already a published author and a talented communicator.

They've done something brilliant at Knepp and this book is a brilliant record of it.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Sophy H.
1,241 reviews61 followers
November 1, 2020
This is a fantastic book detailing what happens when we let Nature back in and let her take her rightful place on vast acres of land that have been raped on an industrial scale for decades.

The vast lands of the family estate are given over to native seeds, wildflowers, natural processes, grazing wild animals and the re-wilding of the earth. Intervention is kept to a minimum and species start to flourish like never before, with plentiful habitats and safe spaces to breed.

Of course the obligatory twatty neighbouring landowners/farmers put up a fuss, how vey dare you let the land go to rack and ruin?!! Make it lovely and neat like my artificially fertilised, subsidised, chemical laden waste ground, with my animals that are cooped up day and night with intensive farming wearing them out before they've reached adulthood!!!

Isabella Tree's writing style is excellent, a real mix of factual information (including shocking numbers of species/plants/habitats in decline) and personal observation and experience.

The only issue of contention for me was her mention of using wild Exmoor ponies for meat!!! Wtf?!!! Apparently once wild ponies breed and their numbers become undesirable, they bring little income when sold (!!), so the theory has been bandied about that they should be allowed to breed and used for meat! Erm, no!

Otherwise the book was faultless.
Profile Image for Jane.
2,681 reviews52 followers
March 14, 2020
Do you remember that horrible humble brag of a book, Eat, Pray, Love? Isabella Tree comes from the Elizabeth Gilbert School with a BA in Science Writing. Born on third base, she and her husband modestly boast of their ecological home run: they turned the magnificent 18th century Humphrey Repton designed British country estate they inherited into a wildlife eco park. Mad applause here. I bet they get David Attenborough (unless he's dead) to do an eight part TV series. I can just hear his breathless whisper shout: "Look! A dung beetle! There hasn't been a dung beetle on the estate since George IV's day!" I'll allow that what they're doing is an admirable thing, but smugness swamped the book for me.
29 reviews
June 23, 2018
One of the most inspiring books I have read in a long time

This book opened my eyes about conservation. The Knepp rewilding project had roasted messages about human preconceptions and letting nature take its own course. The book is well-researched and beautifully written, I recommend it to all those concerned about the degradation of our natural environment.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
261 reviews7 followers
July 9, 2018
I think this book has changed my life. I have had my understanding of nature completely upended, and have a new and deeper appreciation for letting plants and animals manage themselves, and the landscape. The stories we have been telling ourselves about European conquest over vast, dark, closed-canopy forest erases not only indigenous land management, but animal transformation of the landscape. We did not create the panoply of ecosystems in the world, though we are destroying them: heavy grazers and tiny worms and mycorrhizae networks and wild scrub created them. We are also probably wrong about where plants and animals and fungi prefer to be: because we have chased them into the remote corners of their natural range, we know assume that these corners are their only range. And so in trying to create 'ideal' conditions for purple emperors, say, or nightingales, odds are our efforts are misplaced if not counterproductive, or even destructive of the very landscapes they might prefer. We are definitely wrong about how to prevent flood: look at the postage stamp of Pickering, which alone withstood Britain's destructive floods at the turn of millennium, all because they refused a giant wall through their town square and instead built beaver-like dams upstream.

If the success of a book can be judged by the reader's desire to drop everything and pursue the author's project, then Isabella Tree has succeeded, grandly. There is so much to learn here, and I only wish I were responsible for a vast tract of land to rewild. Let's hope those with access to thousands of acres of land read this book, too, and change their minds.
Profile Image for David.
659 reviews314 followers
December 8, 2020
Forced from intensive farming, Isabella Tree and her husband give their 3,500 acres at Knepp Estate back to nature. Easier said than done when even our conception of nature leans to order. Giving weeds free rein and letting ancient trees topple and rot in place. Introducing native fauna like Tamworth pigs to root in the dirt, Exmoor ponies, fallow deer and long horn cattle to graze in the fields and resisting the urge to supplementary feed them, even if it means some will succumb to harsh winters.

The result, a proliferation of threatened species find a home in this wild estate. Turtle doves, purple emperor butterflies, peregrine falcons, multiple owl and bat species all find a place at Knepp. It takes on traditional notions of conservation that aims to save specific species in favour of building an ecosystem that allows endangered species to thrive. This explosion in biodiversity shows what can happen when people surrender the management of nature to nature. But this rewilding of Knepp estate delivers even more unexpected and significant changes right down to the soil itself and the land's ability to mitigate against flooding.

And while I admit that I might have initially found myself in the camp of affronted neighbours complaining of a weed covered landscape littered with dead trees, pats of dung underfoot and a veritable wall of insect life I found myself, in the end, swayed by Tree's persuasive arguments.
Profile Image for Emma.
217 reviews3 followers
October 4, 2021
I loved this. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of “wilding” or “rewilding”, giving the management of land back to nature, before I picked up this book. It was compelling and optimistic. The writer is pragmatic about the large-scale impacts her rewilded estate in Sussex will have on the world, but what she (and her husband) have been able to accomplish in terms of supporting the return of numerous endangered species, purifying their waters, increasing the amount of carbon stored in their soil, contributing to ecological research, etc is incredible. If you want to read more about the impact industrial agriculture has on our planet, without being horribly depressed throughout and in fact being enchanted on occasion, this book is for you.
Profile Image for Hanna Walton.
20 reviews1 follower
March 21, 2022
THE BEST book on conservation/global warming. This book is essential and could save the world if people would listen to the lessons of Knepp
Profile Image for Liisa.
679 reviews46 followers
January 12, 2020
Wilding is the story of Knepp – an English estate that Isabelle Tree together with her husband transformed from intensive agriculture into as close to wilderness as they could. The book follows the process of introducing new species and shares the results of the project, giving backround information about different species, agricultural systems and environmental issues. It’s coherent and comprehensive but problematic as well.⁣

First of all, I really wish Tree had not included the part about food and nutrition. Sentences that emphasize the superiority of animal fats to vegetable fats and recommend you to not cut them out even against the recent medical advice deeply frustrated me. Then she goes on to describe American slaughterhouses as humane, which honestly made me a bit sceptical of everything she says in the whole book.⁣

In addition to the problematic stuff she does say, she also failed to properly bring up that if we stopped intensive animal agriculture, we could release up to 76% of current agricultural land into similar rewilding areas as Knepp. The implications of that would be huge for biodiversity while still producing some meat. Because as much as I advocate plant-based diets, the environmental arguments Tree uses for wild pasture fed meat cannot be completely denied. But for that to be sufficient humankind’s appetite for meat would have to shrink dramatically.⁣

In general, I couldn’t help but feel that much of the science Tree shares is simplified. While the results from Knepp are fascinating, whole chapters on certain species come across as too detailed, and on the other hand some of the links to global problems might be flimsy.⁣

As much as my conflicted feelings about Wilding are frustrating, I’m also quite proud of developing a more critical way to approach nature related non fiction. Particularly because of the food nonsense I can’t take everything in this book seriously, but the main message of our impoverished nature requiring urgent action is an important one, and many of the introduced theories will certainly stay with me.⁣
Profile Image for Natali.
431 reviews303 followers
February 4, 2022
I am interested in the concept of rewilding but this book is not a “how to” manual. It is a tale of how one family rewilded their land and all of the existential choices one has to make in that endeavor. I liked reading this book and I learned a lot! I also appreciated all of the connundrums one has to face in order to take this on.

For example, what does the “re” in “rewilding” mean? Does it mean before human existence or before human influence? I learned the concept of “shifting baseline theory” in which humans define the baseline for other species and the baseline gets lower and lower as those species disappear. So how can we “return” to something that is a moving target?

Another issue is government regulations. For example, the author wanted to allow carcasses of animals that die on her land to be able to decompose naturally and be used as food for other species but the U.K. government does not allow it. Government regulation is a pretty regular issue for her but she doesn’t seem too bitter about it. I’m sure I wouldn’t be so zen about it.

She also tells of human resistance to rewilding her land and it is quite funny. She received very snippity letters from neighbors about how her "weeds" were "offensive" to their sensibilities. The same neighbors wrote poems about it in the local paper! It’s all so posh and British.

What this book does beautifully is point out the symbiosis of natural species that we as humans are not at all protecting. She does not write this in a pissed-off environmentalist tone at all. She simply cites study after study about how humans rape nature. It’s bad. I don’t know how she manages to keep the non-preach tone because I felt increasingly pissed off as I read.

She ends the book with the quote from American ecologist Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

Sigh. Yes. I must figure out how to implement these lessons in my family’s life!
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