Wilding: a review

by frankbeswick

Isabella Tree has written a fine book on the Kneppe rewilding project

The Kneppe project, in which an estate in the Sussex Weald, an area of high ground in the South East of England, was taken out of intensive agricultural production and restored as a wildlife site, marks a significant move in conservation. It is not some distant,lonely Scottish loch or mountain, but an area within comfortable commuting distance of London. The project therefore shows what can be done in heavily populated sections of the country.

Photo courtesy of bogdanchr, from Pixabay

The Kneppe Estate.

Kneppe still has a ruined castle, not a large one, but a  hunting tower  where King John used to hunt deer and disperse venison to his favoured servants. The estate is on the Sussex Weald, an area of hilly countryside between the chalk  hills of the North and South Downs, both of which lie south of London. The land is marginal, meaning that it is not prime agricultural land, though its owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree had for some years attempted to make a profit farming the land as intensively as possible.This is  a tale of how a failing estate was turned into a successful wildlife haven.

Isabella tells the  story well, skilfully weaving her account of the progress of the family estate from a failing farm to a wildlife refuge with a detailed analysis of conservation issues in which she displays a great deal of scientific knowledge, a trove all the more remarkable in a Classics graduate. It is clear that she has a high quality mind and is prepared to use it to study subjects that are meaningful to her. Moreover, she writes in the clear, easily comprehensible style of one who knows her subject intimately well.      

The book manages to combine a deep understanding of the detail of conservation with an awareness of the economic pressures facing farmers, and she and Charlie were not exempt from the need to make money from their estate. She is honest about the difficulties that they faced and she is prepared to face difficult issues, such as the question of whether horse meat should be on the menu, a discussion as controversial as it is necessary. She writes from a genuine love of nature, which shines through in her work, but she also evinces a deep love of Kneppe, her husband's ancestral estate  that his family has held for several centuries.

This book is a banquet of conservation knowledge. The reader feasts on the tale of the purple emperors' visit. This uncommon butterfly arrived just  in time.  Kneppe's fields were suffering an invasion of creeping thistle; the neighbours were not happy and Charlie and Isabella were feeling challenged in their policy of not intervening. Then the butterflies came in their thousands and began to feast on creeping thistle. Vindication! 

This is just one instance of the feast of entomological and other zoological knowledge that the book dispenses. Moths, bats, birds all find their places in this opus. She gives detailed accounts of the sadly declining turtle dove,ruing that it is probably too late to save; she explores strategies for the survival of the nightingale, whose lilting song transports readers into paradise; and she challenges conventional knowledge in places where she makes the justified claim that humans sometime think that an animal's natural habitat is the one into which the creature has retreated under human pressure.


Her work is a celebration of the role of large herbivores in the creation of the European landscape.She undertakes a critical analysis of the theory that the European landscape evolved as a massive woodland of densely packed trees, claiming instead that large herbivores played a major role in its creation. She calls it the animal disturbance theory and argues that the European landscape was less densely tree-covered than has been thought. She bases her theory on the fact that oak, which was prevalent in the early European landscape requires much light to flourish and that its seedlings thrive best when sheltered by a patch of scrub, far cry from the dense, dark forest that has been theorised. Her case is credible and convincing. Evidence is not drawn only from Kneppe but from across the British Isles, a breadth that gives her writing more weight. Moreover, she draws on experts, some of whom she knows personally, to support her case. 

Visits to conservation projects in the Netherlands, Norway  and elsewhere on the European continent provide an extra dimension of interest in the book, and she introduces us not only to their fauna, e.g. European bison, but to the interesting and inspiring characters who manage the projects.  

Some of the large herbivores that she wanted to restore proved difficult  to settle. The aurochs, the ancestral bull, is now extinct, and bison were not available, so she and Charlie  had to use Old English longhorn cattle, which settled well. Also rejected were Heck cattle, a breed deriving from Nazi attempts to breed back the aurochs, for these cattle were considered too aggressive for an estate where local people go walking. Also difficult were the pigs. Wild boar could not be introduced as the estate was popular with walkers, so ginger Tamworths were introduced instead.These pigs, whose snouts are similar to those of a boar, did a great job in clearing land where there were weeds. Wild roe deer were also brought in as the estate began to turn itself into a much more wooded area.  

The  Exmoor ponies proved an attractive introduction.These hardy steeds have dwelt on Exmoor in the south west of England since the end of the Ice Age and bear a similarity to the horses in the cave paintings of France. The reason for having such variety in a small area is to have herbivore suites,  range of animals with complementary grazing patterns. This proved successful.   

A joyful element in the book is the reintroduction of beavers to Kneppe. These European beavers were brought from Scandinavia as part of a general reintroduction for the sake of water management, which in a time of climate change is causing problems in Britain. The book does a detailed study of the issues of water management and flooding and is very informative.   


This book is an excellent and enjoyable read. As a gardener I particularly enjoyed and appreciated the chapter on rewilding the soil, which is so informative about the edaphon, the combined mass of biota found in soil that I intend to read it again to digest more of its ideas.    

The book is written in a clear style, treading well the narrow path between writing too simply and academic language.We are clearly  reading the work of a successful journalist and experienced writer here. I unreservedly recommend this work to readers in the full confidence that you will find it informative and enjoyable.    

Updated: 04/10/2019, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 04/19/2019

BSG,selecting animals was a major issue. Bison were not available and anyway were not to my knowledge found in Britain. The wild cattle of the Chillingham herd are descended from the ancient British wild cattle that roamed the wildwood,but they are dangerous to handle.So they were not considered.

frankbeswick on 04/19/2019

Derdriu, I replied to your post seven days ago, but my reply is not on screen.It must be some mistake on my part! Yes, Kneppe was a royal property that was passed on.

The dawn chorus of birds was a well-known phenomenon, though wildlife decline has weakened it. The turtle dove is now very rare in Britain, and it is not present in my area, the North West of England.

blackspanielgallery on 04/18/2019

The difficulty in selecting animals is itself a major feat.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/11/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the review and the products. The Wikipedia article on the European turtle dove has a recorded passage from Hampshire, England. It's a lovely song that doesn't sound at all like the Carolina turtledove (actually the unrelated American mourning dove, Zenaida macroura). The latter may be heard here every day at about 7:30 in the morning and in the evening. Would that not at all be an occurrence among European turtle doves?
Wikipedia gives the Kneppe spelling as Knepp. It mentions the former castle as built by William de Braose (relative of the William who was executed by John's daughter Joan's husband Llywelyn the Great?) and rebuilt by King John. Was it a royal property that somehow lost its royal status?

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