Large herbivorous mammals like the aurochs (the wild ox), tarpan (the original wild horse of Europe), wisent (the European bison), elk (known in North America as moose), European beaver and the omnivorous wild boar… aLL, according to fossil bone records, re-colonized the lowlands of Central and Western Europe along with red deer and roe deer about 2,000 years after the end of the last ice age – around 12,000 years ago. Trees, on the other hand – according to the pollen records – appear only between 9,000 and 1,500 years ago. So, oak, lime, ash, elm, field maple, beech and hornbeam – the key species of what is claimed to have been the primordial closed-canopy deciduous forest of Europe – arrived at least 3,000 years after the large herbivores. This is a very different picture to the one that has rooted in our mythology.
I’m reading WILDING: THE RETURN OF NATURE TO A BRITISH FARM by Isabella Tree, about the reclamation of Knepp Farm. Now, I live with an ordinary little patch of dirt on an ordinary compact British city street. And we’ve let the garden go to rack and ruin since the kid left home. So one of my summer projects has been reclaiming the garden. Which implies restoring order, right? A manicured and regimented space. Thing is, in these non-natural outdoor spaces, a wild garden isn’t so much “wild” as it is colonised and closed-off. The soil – which was never great to start with – is for shit, and the only things that thrive are Japanese knotweed, the holly trees, and a demented wisteria that seems to think it’s marching towards Poland.
The other month, the kid directed me to a website for a farm close to her that sells wild meat. It’s Knepp Farm. This book, which I bought for 99p in a sale last year and just decided to open on Monday, is written by one of the custodians of Knepp Farm. This is Knepp’s story.
Wild boar became extinct in England at least three hundred years ago but in recent years escapees and releases from wild-boar farms have re-established wild populations. A large population near the coast in East Sussex provides Rye’s annual Wild Boar Festival in October with ‘wild boargers’, ‘boargignon’ and other delicacies from the ‘last of the summer swine’.
Knepp, a vast estate, has been there for around a thousand years. In its latter decades, it was intensively farmed, even though it is as shitty a farmland soil as mine. So, with failure imminent, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell decided to try something else. They decided to wild the entire estate. All 3500 acres. That’s 1400 hectares. Five and a half square miles. A bigger space than Heathrow Airport. About the same size as the entirety of LAX. Not small.
It’s an absolutely fascinating read: funny, but focussed, not afraid of detailing stresses and reversals, cogent and careful in explaining their reasoning, discoveries and goals. There’s a lot of history in it, too, and longtime readers know I’m a history nerd.
And it is, frankly, an astonishing thing: taking five square miles of dirt and returning it to the wild. In full knowledge that “rewilding” isn’t possible, and conditions of eight thousand years ago can only be approximated. More of a future-wilding. Not what it was, but what it could become.
While (purple emperor butterflies) may favour a particular tree for their displays, the felling of a ‘master oak’ does not – as is commonly believed – result in the demise of a colony. At Knepp, the butterflies have plenty of oaks to choose from and they charge around the leeward branches of 400-year-old veterans grown out of ancient hedges, around giants on the edges of woods or fringing the green lane – always within yards of the sallow stands – in territories identified on Matthew’s purple emperor map as ‘Serial Offenders’ Institute’ and ‘Mindless Violence’, a short walk from ‘Bonked Senseless’.
The whole project is grounded in solid history and science but is wholly future-facing, and that appealed to me. And also taught me many things, and gave me a lot to think about. An unexpected pleasure of a read.
WILDING, Isabella Tree (link)