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.