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Book review - Wilding

Wilding by Isabella Tree (great name) is a wonderful book about how nature, left to its own devices, can so quickly repair some of the damage that humanity has inflicted upon biodiversity.

It centres on the story of the Knepp farm estate in West Sussex which, by the end of the 1990s was struggling to survive as a modern intensive farm. The owners then set out on a radical alternative programme, letting nature, as much as possible, take its course.

Nature’s nightmare, in shocking detail

Along the way we hear the horror stories about sharply declining numbers across the natural realm, through destruction of habitats and the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Thousands of miles of hedgerows have been torn out, while, since the 1930s, 97% of UK wildflower meadows have been lost, mostly to arable farming or forestry. Pesticides then, as the author says, turn good soil into dirt, sterile except for whatever can be made to grow by artificial fertilisers.

Since the 1930s, 97% of UK wildflower meadows have been lost

The loss of microbial life means the number of moths has fallen by 88 percent since 1970, ground beetles by 72 per cent, butterflies by 76 per cent. The same is also true of flora: very ordinary ‘weed’ species on which many birds rely have declined by 1 per cent every year since records began in the 1940s.

Decimated bird numbers

All this has had devastating effects on our bird populations. For every 10 nightingales that sang in the 1960s, there is only one now. Turtle doves, once the soundtrack of the countryside in summer, have almost disappeared, down from 250,000 in the 1960s to about 5,000 now. The number of yellowhammers has fallen by 60% since 1960. We are much more likely to have heard a lark ascending in the concert hall than in the countryside, where numbers declined by 75% in the last quarter of the 20 thE century, and continue to fall.

Deteriorating food quality

Despite claims to efficiency, the food produced by intensive farming is often less nutritious. The reliance on artificial fertilisers, comprising only nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, means that modern fruit and vegetables contain far fewer trace minerals than our food use to. We have to eat 10 tomatoes now to ingest as much copper as a single tomato contained in 1940. The author quotes a study that suggests we need to eat 8 oranges to get the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents got from a single orange.

But there is hope…

The experience at Knepp, however, produces heartening stories about the richness of the creation, and how quickly nature can recover. There is a wonderful chapter, kept to the end of the book, about the power of the humble earthworm not only to digest waste and produce rich fertilizer, but even to detoxify the soil we have poisoned.

We read of the power of pigs and ants to turn the Sussex clay into light, complex soil, without the need for heavy machinery or chemical fertilizer. And even the most well-intentioned tree-planting programme is no match for nature: a single jay can plant 7,500 acorns in a month, many of them hidden under thickets where the young saplings can develop undisturbed.

The power of an ant

We must stop playing God

Isabella Tree, although not a Christian, clearly shares the critique of Enlightenment hubris – the idea that, rather than learning to live with nature, we can dominate and control it through our own cleverness and technological competence. She also helpfully questions what we think the natural world should look like. We have an idea of how nature should look, usually based on how it looked when we were children, forgetting that our experience then was of a landscape already sharply depleted from what it had been even one generation earlier, let alone a century or two.

Letting Creation do its thing

We have a penchant for tidiness: we object to scrub land, we want fallen tree branches cleared away, and we certainly don’t want to come across an animal carcass in the middle of a country ramble. But the diversity of nature thrives among the tangles of brambles, in the decaying wood of a dead tree, and in recycling the bodies of other animals. If you take away these opportunities in the interests of tidiness, you restrict the multiplication of micro-organisms that depend on them, and of the birds and animals that in turn depend on them.

Nature thrives among the tangle of brambles

Our emotions may also react against the idea of ‘apex predators’ – predators who do not themselves suffer predation – but the science tells us clearly that reintroducing them has beneficial effects on biodiversity. Fishermen may instinctively react against the introduction of beavers, fearing they will compete for fish stocks. But when they were reintroduced in Bavaria, it was found that, thanks to the beavers’ creation of ponds, invertebrates and micro-organisms multiplied, and so too did the fish. Fish stocks increased 80-fold, providing plenty for everyone.

Less will be far more in the long term

It is not an argument for letting nature go wild, but for what one person termed ‘a long-term, minimum intervention’ – relying more much heavily on natural processes than human cleverness. The author suggests that allowing more land, in rotation, to lie fallow for a decade or more, would hugely benefit the soil and biodiversity. That amount of fallow land could easily be made available If we cut down on food waste. The UN estimates that in industrialised countries, approximately 20 per cent of dairy and meat food is wasted, rising to a staggering 40–50 per cent of root crops, fruit and vegetables.

Staggering quantities of food waste in industrialised countries

The author is also very clear about the need for central government funding to enable farmers to move back to a less intensively managed landscape where nature is left to do more of the work. But the costs of working with nature are so much less than working against it.

At Pickering in North Yorkshire the government solution to repeated devastating floods in the early 2000s was to build a £20 million concrete wall through the town to keep the water in the river. Instead, by using nature to create a series of ‘leaky dams’ to slow the flow of water from the hills, they have, for a mere £2 million, been kept safe when other parts of northern England continued to suffer flooding.

Similarly, natural compost made by earthworms is much more effective and cheaper than the artificial, while ‘dung beetles are estimated to save the British cattle industry £367 million a year simply by encouraging the growth of healthy grass’.

In summary…

This is a great read for the lay-person, offering many insights into the interconnectedness of nature. But above all, the book is another warning about how much damage humanity is doing to the planet through our hubris and trust in our own cleverness and technology. However, it’s also a hopeful sign about how quickly our Lord’s creation can recover if allowed to do so, with respect and trust.

Wilding was published by Picador in 2018

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