Rewilding

In March, three MHSG members presented an evening of talks under the banner of “Creating a Wilder Britain”. Our thanks to Annabel, Stewart and Laila for their time, knowledge and fascinating insights.

From different angles, they each explored the exciting potential of rewilding as a means of “establishing a functioning eco-system, where nature is given as much freedom as possible”. 

The power of Knepp-otism …

Thus runs the mission statement of the trailblazing Knepp Estate in West Sussex, where, in 2001, Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree – author of the celebrated book ‘Wilding’- returned 3,500 acres of inherited dairy farm to nature. Beyond restoring water systems and managing their grazing animals, they essentially stood back to see what happened.

Which was a great deal, as Laila Hackworth-Jones discovered when she spent a weekend glamping, walking and safari-ing there. 

Laila spotted magnificent white storks in huge, precarious nests, the mighty stag pictured here, that she painted from memory – such was the impression that it left – and learned of rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies that have returned to Knepp. Which, in turn, has been returned to a glorious oasis, teaming with life at every level. 

Indeed, a single cow pat was noted to host 23 species of dung beetle by our next speaker, Annabel Gregory. She was particularly struck, however, by how relatively few carbon-storing trees Knepp has (just 13%), which took her down a rabbit hole (aptly) researching sequestration: the process by which carbon is removed from the air and stored in vegetation and soil. In greater volumes than by the more visible trees, we learned.

Of the many more eyebrow-raising moments in her talk, Annabel explained that there is as much carbon in the soil as in all vegetation on land and the atmosphere combined, thanks to decomposing vegetation and, most effectively, by the wondrous mycorrhizae.

These microscopic strands of fungi weave themselves around plant roots, creating a network and feeding off carbon, while symbiotically feeding back nutrients. And as particular plants favour particular fungi, the greater the variety of vegetation, the more complex the fungi network … and the more potential storage of carbon in the soil. Yet another solid argument for the biodiversity created by rewilding.

As all three speakers noted, much of Knepp’s success has been down to the range of free-roaming herbivores – from pigs to deer to longhorns and wild ponies – each creating growth promoting ‘natural disturbance’ through variously munching, tramping, rootling and nibbling, while also broadcasting nutrients and seeds. 

Interestingly, Annabel explained, the natural choice of grazing for cattle is not methane-producing grass, but methane-inhibiting plants like sallow, as demonstrated at Knepp; and the lower leaves of trees. And, in the eternally astonishing cycle of a healthy ecosystem, those browsed trees then respond by developing wider, deeper, sturdier root systems … storing more carbon!

The Wild West (Norfolk) …

But Knepp is small fry compared to the ambitious plans of MHSG member Stewart McIroy and the West Norfolk Nature Network (WNNN).

Stewart had long held a dream to rewild his own corner of the planet. Such that he had even drawn his perfect plot. 

When an inheritance finally made it possible, the 40 acres of arable and 3 acres of woodland that he bought in West Norfolk was an uncanny replica of his ideal. It was clearly meant to be (see ‘before & after’ pics above).

His land is part of a much bigger picture managed by the WNNN, and involves a 33k acre site, of which 12k acres will be fully rewilded, with the balance used for regenerative farming. 

The rewilded area will be carefully managed, with mapped land corridors, for those critical free roaming herbivores, and several river catchments. So, Stewart’s first job will be to take down any fencing and make gaps in hedges to facilitate this natural migration of animals.

He will then seed his ‘field’, as he modestly calls it, with good quality wildflower mixes taken from old meadows across the UK, which will make way for less pretty but hugely biodiverse scrubland in around three years’ time.

He’ll also be making time to relax in his planned glamping tree house and hot tub!

Excitingly, the bigger WNNN plan is to link up with other such projects across the UK, potentially by building wildlife bridges and incorporating more land, to fill in the gaps. 

Because scale is crucial to attract the full range of ruminants, to share and reduce the costs, to maximise the biodiversity and the carbon capture and to reach the critical mass required for the reintroduction of species like beavers, lynx, bison and more.

But the benefits don’t stop there, as Stewart pointed out. Rewilding naturally mitigates against wildfires and flooding, and provides more jobs than farming, as the Knepp Estate’s successful move into eco-tourism and wild range meat illustrates. 

And on that note … plan well ahead if you want to stay in one of their holiday cottages – they are booked up years in advance!

Wild about Wilding …?

If you’d like to be part of the growing rewilding movement, there are still fields available through WNNN. Contact us through info@mhsgroup.org for further information.

Or take a look at some of these useful resources, kindly selected by Stewart McIlroy:

Useful books

  • Wilding – Isabella Tree (the return of nature to a British farm (Knepp))
  • The Book of Wilding – Isabella Tree & Charlie Burrell (a practical guide to rewilding big and small)
  • Rewilding – Paul Jepson & Cain Blythe (the radical new science of ecological recovery)
  • Feral – George Monbiot (searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding)
  • How To Rewild – Jonathan Thomson (a practical manual from Underhill Wood Nature Reserve for One to Fifty Acres)
  • Bringing Back the Beaver – Derek Gow (the story of one man’s quest to rewild Britain’s waterways
  • Rewilding – David Woodfall (real life stories of returning British & Irish wildlife to balance)

Handy websites

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One Response

  1. Such an interesting evening, Laila, Stewart and Annabel. Left me feeling so very inspired! (And hankering after a hot tub and treehouse!) Thank you all. Lisa

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