Isabella Tree: A Farm’s Return to the Wild

Transcript by Rey Smith.

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s science series. On September 26th, 2019, author and award-winning travel writer Isabella Tree came to our Forum stage to recount the trials and outcomes she faced by letting nature reclaim her 3,500 acre, centuries-tilled farmland. Isabella discussed why she started this bold mission to revive the land and wildlife by letting nature take its course in her new book Wildling: The Return of Nature to a British Farm.

Isabella Tree: Thank you so much. It’s absolutely wonderful to be in Seattle. I’ve never been here before. We just arrived, and I’m very excited. Well, we wake up every morning to more and more catastrophic examples of what’s happening to the planet. The UN recently published a report that said that we were in danger of losing a million species from our planet completely. We’ve got 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans. And I think this week we had the lovely news that 3 billion birds are missing from American skies since the 1970’s. E.O Wilson in one of his recent books—a wonderful American biologist—says that if we are to sustain ourselves on this planet, and to maintain biodiversity, we have to dedicate half Earth back to nature. We have to be generous, and we have to give half of our planet back to nature.

(1:48) So the question is how do we go about this? How can we do this? Well, my story is a very small story. It’s a little place in Southeast England, but we are beginning to understand that it has big repercussions because it is about a big change in mindset. And I think that’s really the key to how we move forward. So this is where I’m talking about, in the Southeast of England, in the busiest, most populated—we’re underneath the Gatwick stacking system for heaven sake. And this is where I live with my husband Charlie Burrell. It’s a castle that was built by the architect John Nash in the early 1800’s. It sits in the middle of 3,500 acres in Southeast England. And we inherited this place from Charlie’s grandparents in the 1980’s. And when we inherited it, it was already an intensive, arable and dairy farm. Pretty much all 3,500 acres of it had been put to the plow and had been working for decades. But it wasn’t always so. It really had only been an intensive farm since the Second World War. During the Dig for Victory campaign—you may all be familiar with it—but in Britain, we were facing starvation, our supply lines were cut. And so the government incentivized farmers to plow up every single available inch of land. That included cricket pitchers, it included backyards, it included village greens. It even included somewhere like this, which was in Repton Park, which had probably never been plowed in the entire history. And here you can see in my grandmother-in-law’s writing: a fine wheat crop, said with pride. This was contributing to the war effort. You can see the Duke of Gloucester in the back taking the parade of the Canadian army who was stationed at Knepp during the war.

(3:50) So what we tend to forget, I think, is that this was a moment of crisis. And this propelled us into a system of a maximum production. Even during the war there were agronomists in the UK urging the government to return as soon as possible to a rotational system of farming where you can allow the land to lie fallow, and you can include animals in part of that mix because we were already beginning to see our soils being destroyed. And that was before the war was even over. This was because there was continuous cropping on the same soil year in, year out. But that didn’t happen. The words of advice from the agronomists weren’t listened to because after the Second World War, we got hooked on the idea of maximum production. And of course by then we had chemicals, very easy to transform our munitions factories into factories that can produce artificial fertilizer and all the chemicals that go along with industrialization. And we became fixed on this idea that we could use the soil in this way, we could abuse the soil in this way, and we could have miraculous, ever-increasing crops ad infinitum. Of course, now we’re beginning to realize that that just isn’t true. And as part of this system, we began to overproduce. In the 70’s we became very famous in Europe for the mountains of butter and meat. And we had wine lakes and milk lakes. But we are still over-producing. We produce enough food on this planet for 11 billion people. We waste 40% of it.

(5:31) And just driving up—as we’ve done from the coast, from LA—we were passing huge fields of red peppers that were just rotting on the plants because the commodity plier price had changed and it wasn’t worth picking them. We drove through groves of unpicked oranges and grapefruit that were not going to be picked this year. So we’re in a system of chemical addiction, and it’s become the norm, it’s become what we are used to seeing. And this is really what most of Britain now looks like; every single inch that can be plowed is plowed mainly for arable. And of course now we have to feed—because we are over-producing arable—we have to provide new mouths for that arable to feed. So we feed it to our cows and, heaven forbid, we’re starting to feed it to our sheep. And now we’re starting to feed it to our cars because we have to find a way for the supply chain to continue. And it’s no surprise then that in Britain, our biodiversity has absolutely crashed. We’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadow since the Second World War. We’ve lost almost all our lowland heathland, almost all our wetlands. We lost 44 million birds from our skies since the 1960’s, and we plowed up 75,000 miles of hedge rose, all in an effort to drive this addicted chemical farming.

(7:03) This was Knepp, where I live, 20 years ago. And we thought that this was great. We thought that this was what we were supposed to be doing. The problem was when we took over in the 1980’s, this arable and dairy farm was already losing money hand over fist. And we assumed, I suppose, with the arrogance of youth, that it was all down to Charlie’s grandparents. That they hadn’t invested in infrastructure. They didn’t know the latest technologies. They weren’t up with the latest ways of farming. And Charlie, my husband, child of the Green Revolution—a misnomer if ever there was one—he grew up, was trained at agricultural college, and felt that he knew how to turn this farm around. He could make it efficient and drag it into the 20th, and eventually the 21st, century. So for 16 years, this is what we did. We did what every good farmer is supposed to do. We invested in more machinery, bigger machinery. We tried out, experimentally, different varieties of crops. We made efficiencies. We amalgamated five dairies into three. We bought state-of-the-art milking parlors that were like something out of NASA. We did everything we possibly could to try and turn this farm around, and that included putting more and more chemicals on the land. So more fertilizer, more pesticide, more herbicide, more fungicide, all in an effort to try and turn its fortunes around. But after 17 years, we were more in debt than ever. We were 1.5 million pounds in debt and we knew we couldn’t go on anymore. And the reason was this: it’s Sussex clay. I don’t know if anyone has ever been to East and West Sussex, but this is called low weald clay. We sit on 320 meters of it over a bedrock of limestone. I believe the Inuit are supposed to have dozens of different types of words for snow, but in Sussex we have 35 different words for mud. That is how much it governs our lives. So in a dry summer it cracks like concrete. I mean, it’s hard as concrete and these huge cracks open up in it. So you can literally put your hand up to your shoulder in those cracks. And in the winter, if it’s a wet winter, it is unfathomable porridge. So you literally cannot get a machine, you can’t get heavy machinery onto our land sometimes for six months of the year, which means that you can’t sow spring crops. You can’t do any ditch maintenance. You can’t do any maintenance at all. You just cannot get heavy machinery onto the land. And that means, ultimately, we cannot compete with farms on lovely, loamy grade 1, grade 2 soils. We just can’t do it. It took us 17 years to realize that: that our land was not cut out for modern intensive farming.

(9:59) And so in 1999, Charlie made the bold decision, and it was quite an emotional one, to give up farming. Emotional because it was in his DNA, in his family’s DNA, and they couldn’t understand what we were doing. And also because we had to sack our farm manager, who was a friend. Nine other men lost their jobs. And we had to sell three of the best dairy herds in the country. And it was a very, very black day. But we did manage to sell our farm machinery and our herds and our milk quota and clear our debts. And that meant that we were suddenly free, and it was the most liberating experience. I don’t know if any of you have ever had the misfortune to be in a failing business, but you end up very, very blinkered. It’s impossible to think outside the box when you are trapped in that tunnel of trying to make a business make ends meet. When you have a little glimmer of hope, you cling to it, and you hope that next week will be better, or next month or even next year. That your fortunes will turn around. When you finally make that decision to quit, that’s when you have the headspace to think creatively and to think imaginatively about what your land should have been doing in the first place, about how it could go forward. And that is when we decided that we wanted to do something that was going to work with the land rather than battling against it all the time.

(11:30) And that’s when we met this incredible man called Franz Vera—he’s on the right there, with the gray hair. He’s a Dutch ecologist, and his book Grazing Ecology and Forest History was published in English in 2000. It was the year that we had our farm machinery sale. And that was a complete coincidence; it was a complete turning point for us. I think [if] we’d met him or read his book 5 years earlier, we would have thought, “Interesting, but not for us.” But suddenly we were open to ideas. And what Franz was saying was really sending shockwaves through the whole conservation world and the world of ecology. And it still is to some extent. What he is saying is that in all our imaginings of how the world looked before human impact, we tend to forget the massive amount, the millions, the huge herds of megafauna that would have been here, particularly in temperate zone Europe. We have a kind of mythology that our landscape was closed-canopy forest. We have a saying that a squirrel could have run from John O’Groats—the top of Scotland—to Land’s End in Cornwall without touching the ground. But if you put back into that landscape all the animals that would have been there, if you put back bison, aurochs—the ancestor of the cow—tarpan—the ancestor of the horse—you put back elk, you put back reindeer, wild boar, beavers by the millions, and that’s just to name a few of them, then you have a landscape that was very, very different. You have something that is much more open, much more dynamic, a kaleidoscopes of habitats because these animals are driving that creation of habitat. The way they rootle, the way they trample, the way they debark trees, they break branches, they coppice, they pollard. Just their manure, their urine, the way they trampled vegetation into the ground. All of this creates opportunities for other wildlife. It’s a way of stimulating, endlessly, biodiversity. So what Franz is saying is that if you appreciate the megafauna that used to be in the world, in the planet before human impact—and here we’ve got just the species that have gone extinct. So actually, they’re not even species; they’re genera of animals that have gone extinct. You can see that in Africa and in Europe, compared with the rest of the world, there are relatively few. And that is because these animals co-evolve with human beings. So they learnt fear. They learnt to recognize this strange ape throwing spears at them, and learnt how to take evasive action, or at least how to defend themselves. What happens when you get mankind reaching Australia and then North America and South America is that mankind comes across these megafauna, which are very naive, and it’s very, very easy to drive them to extinction. Big animals, very few offspring. They take a long time to mature. It’s very easy to send big mammals, megafauna into extinction. So what Franz is saying is that all these animals would have been driving habitats, creating really complex landscapes. And if we want to recover biodiversity, the way to do that is to put the megafauna back into our landscapes.

(14:54) So we thought this was a fascinating idea. If we could do this on our 3,500 acres of Knepp—on this terrible land, severely chemically abused for 70 years or more, in the busiest part of England, and we could increase biodiversity by just a little fraction—then we could show that this was something worth doing. There was something worth pursuing. So that’s what we did. We went about preparing the way for this project and had a fantastic time, at least my husband did, because I think it’s every little boy’s dream is to smash up drains and just create wet patches wherever you go, make kind of ponds and rivers and make dams and all that kind of thing. So he had a fantastic time smashing up all the Victorian drains that have been trying very ineffectively to get the water off our land. We just let the ditches silt up—imagine how liberating for a farmer, just to forget about the ditches. We took up about 77 miles of internal fences. Again, a huge cost, and if you’re not having to maintain that as a farmer, that’s a huge relief. And already we were beginning to see exciting things happen. Where the water was sitting on the land where it always wants to sit, we suddenly started seeing water invertebrates coming back, water plants just arriving out of nowhere and waterbirds, waterfowl. So suddenly we were hearing the sound of insects, and we were hearing the sound of birds. It was something we hadn’t even realized we were missing as farmers. And then we got a pulse of vegetation coming up in our arable fields. We left them after harvest over a period of about six years, so we staggered the release of these fields, and we were seeing pulses of thorny scrub coming up. And in that thorny scrub, in the blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose brambles, we were seeing little shoots of oaks appearing, jay-planted Oaks. Jays can plant 4,000 acorns in four weeks, one jay. So it’s not surprising that suddenly we were seeing nature coming back in just that short period of time. And finally, after about seven or eight years, we finally persuaded the powers that be—the environmental arm of the government—to finance the building of the fence around the whole area. It took us a long time to persuade them that we weren’t complete nutters, but eventually they did get the point, and we were able to ring fence the whole area and introduce our free roaming animals.

(17:25) Now, because we’ve hunted to extinction many of our megafauna, we can’t replace the aurochs or the tarpan, but what we can do is we can use proxies for them. We can use their domesticated descendants. It’s important, I think, to emphasize that rewilding, as it’s come to be known, isn’t about trying to recapture the past. We can’t go back. Our planet is so completely, irrevocably changed—mostly because of what we’ve done to it—that we can’t possibly go back to a stage before human beings or this pristine ideal. But what we can do is we can use the tools at our disposal now to create something more biodiverse. We can create what some people have called “novel ecosystems”. So you’re really only intending to get something that functions back into the landscape, to get natural processes happening again. And that is what these, these herbivores do for us. They’re the driver that pull the glider back up into the sky again so it can fly. Once you allow these herbivores to manage the land for you—and that’s a really difficult thing from a human being’s point of view is to sit back and let the animals do the work—then extraordinary things begin to happen. And so we introduced, instead of the aurochs—that’s the aurochs up on the cave paintings of Lascaux in France 17,500 years ago—we have our old English Longhorn doing a very good imitation of the aurochs. And these animals are absolutely astonishing. What we forget about cattle, because we only ever see them in industrial systems, is that they don’t just eat grass. They are browsers as well as grazers, and browsing is hugely important for them. They love eating herbs and forbs and all that kind of thing, but they have a smorgasbord of things that they eat from at Knepp. An important thing about these animals is that they can carry 230 different seed species in their gut, their hooves, and their fur, so they’re a really important vector for plants, getting parts from one place to another. So they eat in one place, they can move sometimes miles, dung out the seeds in a perfect pile of manure ready to take off again. They’re not just transporting seeds, they’re also transporting minerals and nutrients. So a really important vector for moving nutrients across the landscape, and that’s something that we completely forget about in our static agricultural systems. And you can see they’re big disturbers as well. When you get these bulls together, they’re digging up the turf and creating all manner of disturbance.

(20:02) Then we’ve got Exmoor ponies standing in for the tarpan, and look how similar our Exmoor looks to the cave paintings of Lascaux, to the original tarpan. These ponies almost went extinct in the Second World War. They were down to about 40 individuals on Exmoor itself in the West country of Britain, largely due to the army who used them as target practice, I’m ashamed to say. But they are now back from the brink of extinction, and they are still rarer than the giant panda. But we have a free roaming herd at Knapp, and they are hugely important for how they also create dynamism in the landscape. They’re eating completely differently to the cattle, and what they contribute is extra vegetation complexity, different mouthpiece in the landscape. Princeton University are doing really interesting work in Kenya at the moment into the relationship between equines and bovines. Again, it’s something we’ve completely forgotten about. And what they’re saying is so counter intuitive. It’s like so much of rewilding, you just can’t quite understand how it works until it’s explained. But what they’re saying is that if you have a hundred cattle grazing a given area, and you allow them to graze alongside equines, and that could be a pony, it could be a donkey, it could even be a zebra, those a hundred head of cattle would put on more condition, more weight than if they’re allowed to graze that land on their own. How does that happen? Well, the reason is that the horses, the equines, are eating completely different things to the cattle. You can see here, the Exmoors are eating thistles and very thatchy thick grasses that the cattle just can’t stomach. So what happens is that the equines take out that rough stuff and that enables the sweeter grasses to come through, which benefits the cattle and allows them to put on condition. So I have this fantasy, this dream, this idea in my head that in times gone by we would have seen huge herds of tarpan moving through the landscape, and in their wake you would have had herds of aurochs grazing in the habitat that the tarpan had created for them. It’s a really interesting relationship that we’re just beginning to use, and actually now using back in Exmoor and Dartmoor. We’re beginning to see that actually having these wild, free-roaming horses amongst your cattle, again, can really benefit them.

(22:31) And then we have three different types of deer, so we have red deer, roe deer, and phylo deer. Again, it’s about getting different mouthpieces in the landscape, different types of disturbance. They all eat different types of vegetation, and they have different ways of connecting with the landscape. Red deer, in particular, I’m so used to seeing them in Scotland on bare, barren, remote hillsides, but they spend most of their time in the water in Knepp. And we’re beginning to realize that red deer actually were probably a riverine species, and we just pushed them out as we began to colonize the river basins. But these can be particularly big hitters, just like elk, in the rut. And they will turf up the ground with their antlers. They’ll create lekking sites, the fallow will, where they just spread urine on the whole area. They’ll rub their scent glands everywhere. Every time they rub their scent glands on a tree, creates a niche for another creature. So the whole domino effect of having these animals in the landscape is absolutely huge.

(23:34) And then we have my favorite, the Tamworth pig, standing in for the wild boar. And what’s astonishing about seeing these domesticated animals released into a landscape is they’re completely full of surprises. Who would have thought that a Tamworth pig could behave like a hippo? But they can actually swim, and they will hold their breath, they can dive, they can hold their breath for 20 seconds. And what they’re doing in the water is they’re pulling up rhizomes, and, in particular, their favorite thing is swan mussels that they’re finding at the bottom of the ponds. How they knew they were there, I have no idea. But you can watch them pulling the swan mussels to the bank, and they’ll open the shell with their trotters and take out the flesh. Absolutely amazing. It’s their favorite thing. But we’re so used to seeing animals in a very confined situation. And as a farmer, we were used to seeing our dairy cows with their heads down in a green field. And I thought they were lovely animals, but pretty boring. But it’s not the animal that’s boring. It’s the situation we put them in that’s boring. If you release them into a site, into a landscape where they can explore, and they can express themselves, they still have all those instincts. They still know how to self-medicate. They know how to look after themselves. They know how to have their young. It’s a completely different picture. You see a completely different animal. It’s a complete animal that you’re seeing out there. And of course the pig is doing something very important for us. It’s rootling. And that practice, it really allows native wildflowers—I’m training myself not to use the word “weeds”—but this really thick, heavy sward, you can see how difficult it would be for a seed to penetrate that grass. But as soon as you’ve got a little opening, it’s very quickly colonized by all sorts of—so quickly that Charlies wellies haven’t even moved—but that’s how quickly you get this very complex vegetation coming back. And thanks to the pigs, we think, we now have these wonderful wildflowers, our native wildflowers coming back. So we have things like bird’s-foot trefoil, scarlet pimpernel, red clover, fumitory, fluellen, lots of vetches and vetchlings, and these all have huge importance for our pollinating insects. Some of our insects are so specific, they will only pollinate one particular plant. And also they carry really protein rich seeds, and so many of our birds depend on those seeds.

(26:10) So this is what really we’ve seen happening at Knepp. This was us on the farming, and this is the land as it begins to heal itself on the rewilding. And you can see, if you’re a bird or an insect flying over, you’re going to think that’s much more interesting, you might actually deign to go down and have a look at it. And this is what it looks like from the ground. So we have now a kaleidoscopic, shifting mosaic of habitats running into each other. Everything from open-wood pasture to grazed areas to wetlands to water meadows and much of it is thorny scrub. It’s this kind of habitat. This is one of the most biodiverse habitats there is. And we tend now, when we look at it, to think of it as wasteland and most farmers, if they saw that, would throw up their hands in horror and send in huge machines to take it out instantly. But this is where wildlife is finding seeds, berries, it’s where—our flowers are coming up in those thickets. It’s where birds can nest because they’re safe from predation in that thorny scrub. It’s also in there that you’ll find pockets of shallow ponds of still, pure water. And that’s another thing that birds find very difficult to find in our landscapes nowadays because most of our standing water is polluted by nitrates or all coming in off roads and towns. So this is where we’re hearing this unbelievable surround sound of birds. It’s absolutely astonishing. And the ecologists who come and monitor and survey at Knepp now cannot believe just the sheer biomass of life that has returned to us. And none of this we’ve introduced—all these species, the only things we’ve introduced are the other large herbivores; everything else has found us because the habitat is returned.

(28:07) And so we’re literally shifting the baseline for how many birds can fit into a landscape because nobody could believe that this could happen. And the key thing is the numbers of grazers. So if you have too many, obviously you’re going to overgraze and you’re going to turn into a kind of agricultural landscape that we’re all familiar with. If you have too few, then that’s the only scrub is going to start encouraging many, many saplings and then eventually you’re going to have a closed-canopy woodland again. And both those scenarios are very comparatively species-poor and very undynamic. So we keep the stocking levels of our animals very, very low and we cull them and produce meat from the project. So we produce 75 tons of meat from the project every year. But that dynamic is very, very important to keep that battle between the vegetation succession and the animal disturbance; that’s what creates all these messy margins in which life thrives. And so now, having gone from being a virtual biological desert, we have now become one of the most significant areas, completely by surprise. In Britain, we now have some of the rarest species in Britain today. We have ravens back in Sussex for the first time in a hundred years. We’ve got cuckoos again, a species that’s declined 97% since the 1960’s, and nightingales—again, similar declines—and we are now one of the biggest breeding hotspots for nightingales. We’ve got lesser-spotted woodpecker. We got snipe, we got woodcock, we’ve got peregrine falcons nesting in a tree, which is almost unheard of. And this is almost my favorite, it’s the most poignant one I think: this is the turtle dove and it’s about to go extinct in Britain and it’s got about 10 or 15 years, the RSPB thinks, before it disappears from our shores altogether. But when I was growing up in the 1960’s, we had 125,000 pairs of turtledoves. And I’m so nostalgically connected to this bird because that sound of that lovely toor toor is, to me, the sound of a British summer, but we just don’t hear it anymore…until about 5 years into our project; we started hearing turtle doves. Nobody could believe it. We hadn’t had turtledoves at Knepp within living memory. And suddenly they started appearing and last year we had 20 singing males. I think this year we may even have had 21 or 22 that—you can only hear the male singing because the females don’t do the lovely toor toor—but they’re definitely breeding because we’ve even managed to ring a couple of fledglings; they’re incredibly difficult to see. So we could’ve had as many as 30 or 40 turtledoves this year, and that means we are the only place in Britain where turtle dove numbers are actually rising.

(30:58) So we’ve completely bucked the trend. We’ve now got all 5 species of UK owl. We’ve got 13 out of the 18 species of bats in the UK including this one, Bechstein’s bar, which is so rare. We don’t know much about it at all. It’s rare even in Europe. And we’re now by far the biggest population of purple emperor butterflies. This is an extraordinary butterfly; I didn’t even know they existed, I’m ashamed to say, until they appeared at Knepp. It’s very, very rare. It’s our second largest butterfly and I want to say it’s a brood, but it’s incredibly aggressive so it will fight off blue tits any birds that come into his territory, it’ll chase away. It’s like an honorary bird. You can even chuck a stick up into the sky and it will chase it. It’s absolutely extraordinary. It feeds on fox scat—it’s favorite kind of delicacy—and on sap runs that come, the leakages of sap from oaks. And it gets kind of drunk on those and you can see them bashing into things once they’ve been on a sap run. They’re absolutely astonishing creatures. And now we just have hundreds and hundreds of them every summer.

(32:12) So this really is what most of the UK looks like. And you may be familiar—a different kind of way—you can translate this into your own landscape, but it’s very, very highly managed. And this is what most British people would think is beautiful: it’s our green and pleasant land.

But how does rewilding fit into this picture? Where does it fit? Obviously we need to produce food from somewhere, but we cannot go on the way we have. We have to think of half earth, we’ve got to think of how we can regenerate, and we’ve got to think about how we can regenerate our soils in particular because we know that scientists now are telling us that we have 100 harvests left across the world before our topsoil is gone altogether. And that’s because it has become so chemically abused. It’s lost all its structure, all its ability to hold onto nutrients and minerals and water and it is just blowing away as dust, or it’s flushing out to sea down the rivers. So we’ve got to think of a different way of looking at the landscape and how we can manage it.

(33:22) So this is how I think it works. Say in the top right hand corner, that’s Knepp. So that’s your biodiversity hotspot. That’s where you’ve got all this life coming back ready to spill out into the landscape. But at the moment, if it spills out into that landscape, it’s not going to last very long. There’s no habitat there for any of that wildlife. So what can we do? Well, we can put in wildlife corridors. And, of course, if you’ve got wildlife corridors you have to get across those roads which are going to be killing most of your small and your large mammals and perhaps some of your other insects and birds as well. So we’ve got to create road bridges as well. We are absolutely rubbish in Britain at creating road bridges. We’ve got 3 but somewhere like Holland, the Netherlands—much more enlightened in this respect—have about 60 or 70.

(34:11) So it’s perfectly doable, and getting these functioning wildlife corridors really by doing a Knepp approach along them, connecting your areas of existing nature together—so forgetting that we should have wilderness reserves and nature reserves that are almost ghettos for nature—we’ve got to link them up. We’ve got to allow our populations to move through the landscape because only when they can start moving freely can we have meta populations and genetic differences within those populations. And they can actually be resilient in the face of things like climate-changing pollution. And then we’ve got to restore our hedges. We were famous for our hedgerows and we’ve, as I say, pulled up 75,000 miles of them and most of the ones that do exist now are in pretty poor neck. So we’ve got to get those hedges back and we’ve got to broaden them, deepen them so they really do become, in a sense, little wildlife corridors, again, like these bigger ones. And then we can have a neck to margins. We can have areas of nature around our crops, that way you can have your birds dusting in bare earth. You can have your insect pollinator, your crop pollinators. Research recently has shown that even in chemically managed farmland, if you have these nature strips around your arable fields, those crop yields will increase. And that is because of the pollinating insects. First of all, they’re pollinating your crops, but you’ve also got the predators for the diseases and the pests that come and blight your crops. So just having these margins isn’t losing you any yield. It stays the same and even possibly increases even though you’ve committed some of your land to nature.

(36:02) So this is what it looks like, these margins for nature around your fields. But then, of course, you’ve got to do regenerative farming. We cannot go on the way we are with chemical farming. We’ve got to restore our soils. We’ve got to look at ways that we can actually grow our top soils again. And here in the States you have some of the most amazing pioneers in this field. You’ve got Gabe Brown, whose book Dirt to Soil I hugely recommend—it’s astonishing—and he’s done a Ted Talk as well. He’s a North Dakota farmer, if you’re not familiar with him, but he is now in the top 15% of food producers in North Dakota. And he uses no inputs whatsoever. He doesn’t even irrigate in the summer like all his neighbors have to do. And in the winter, his soils are six degrees warmer than his neighbors because he brought his soils back to life, they’re heaving with life, and that means he’s doubled his growing season. So if you can imagine what his profits are like now—because he has no inputs whatsoever—compared with his neighbors, it is absolutely astonishing. All these people are telling us—Joel Salitan similarly, Growing a Revolution, a new book by David Montgomery—is showing how we can actually produce just as much food on the same amount of land, but with no inputs whatsoever. So it is perfectly doable to return to farming. The problem is that the food and farming industry don’t want us to do that, obviously.

(37:31) So here we have our regenerative farming. And then, of course, we’ve got woodpasture here, which, again, could be a little bit like Knepp, but it’s another way of doing agroforestry of silviculture so you can have two-tiered type of farming where you’ve got your animals grazing underneath trees, and we know that they’re mutually beneficial. So these trees could be walnuts, they could be any type of fruit or nut, and then you could even have pigs underneath grazing on the acorns and the nuts as they fall. So again, you’ve just got to think more imaginative about how we get this two-tiered system—very productive—back into our landscapes. And then wetlands, we have to restore our wetlands; water is another problem that we’re facing. We’ve got to stop huge, destructive floods. We’ve got to start being able to store our water again safely, that allows a kind of irrigation and natural irrigation in our landscapes. And what better way of doing that than bringing back the beaver? So we’ve seen from America how influential and fantastic the impact beavers have on the landscape and particularly on wetlands and hydrology. And in Europe we now have—having had only 12 reliced populations of beavers, I think they were down to about a thousand individuals in the 1900’s—we now have millions in almost every single country in Europe, and I’m proud to say they are coming back in Britain too. And we’ve just applied for our license to release them at Knepp; we’re waiting to hear if we’re going to be allowed to do it.

(39:09) So this is our green and pleasant land. Hopefully it’s not looking quite so pleasant now, and this is what it looks like once we have rewilded it a bit and let go. So you can see it’s a different type of landscape that we need to get used to. And we haven’t even talked about the carbon sequestration. So if you think back to that previous picture, where carbon was just being leaked out into the atmosphere from repeated plowing and from soil destruction, now we’re looking at a landscape that is positively beneficial and is actually sequestering carbon. So we know that peatland can store 3.6 tons per hectare per year. Marine environments— imagine that you’ve got the sea over there—4 tons per hectare. Species-rich grassland—so the kind of habitat we have at Knepp—3.6 tons, and that’s not even counting the vegetation above the grassland. And then trees, 12.8 tons. And then wetlands, 5.1 tons. So suddenly you’re looking at a really powerful tool in that landscape for combating climate change.

(40:15) So rewilding as a term was coined in the United States a few decades ago and it was very much associated with the phrase ‘cores, corridors and carnivores’. Well, we’ve seen from that picture how important the cores and the corridors are—how to link everything together—but carnivores is a much thornier issue. Although, having said that, in Europe we are seeing a resurgence of apex predators and we now, in Europe—and of course, remember that Europe is half the size of North America and much more densely populated—we now have twice as many wolves as you do here. And we have 10 times as many brown bears, which are a cousin of the grizzly. And we have links now in 23 different countries in Europe. In the UK, however, it’s a different story because we—you know, small Island—we exterminated most of our apex predators centuries and centuries ago. So we lost our wolves, our lynxes, our bear, our wolverines. So I think it’s going to be a long time—we’re very, very insular and inward-looking; beavers has been a big, big step for us—so getting apex predators back into the landscape is not going to be easy. I’m not going to say never because I think once we see our landscape rejuvenated—once we see areas of habitat creeping through our landscape again and we’ve really got that dynamic landscape back—maybe my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren will be able to make the decision about whether we have wolves and bears back in the landscape. So hopefully one day. But at the moment I think what Knepp is showing is that you can rewild using herbivores, using these megafauna, these grazing and browsing animals, and that’s what kick-starts the dynamism and gets all these extraordinary things happening in the landscape again. And it’s not just biodiversity, it’s carbon sequestration, it’s soil restoration, it’s water management, it’s water purification, it’s air purification. It’s even providing places—wild places—that are good for the human heart, for the human condition, I think.

(42:23) I think one of the things that has been most astonishing on this journey for Charlie and me, going from being farmers into rewilders, is the effect it has on our psychology. It’s that unbelievable feeling of joy and connection you get when you hear that turtle dove toor toor-ing on a summer’s evening from the scrub. It’s the feeling of completeness that you’re in a landscape that is actually humming and thrumming and buzzing with life. Wilson calls it biophilia, you know, that innate desire in all of us to connect with nature. And I think that’s one of the greatest things that rewilding can provide for us right in our own backyard, so we don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to a wilderness area. It’s right there amongst us. So if we have all these incredible benefits from rewilding, why aren’t we doing it everywhere or almost everywhere?

(43:22) Well, I think one of the problems is a question of aesthetics. We have grown up, I think, with a landscape that is so managed and so manicured that that’s where we feel safe or that’s sometimes where we feel nostalgically connected to. I know the landscape I grew up in was very, very managed and seeing it transform into a much wilder place would be quite a difficult leap. We have lots of people now coming to see Knepp and to look at ways of rewilding their own land. Charlie likes to count up the acreage and this year we had well in excess of a million acres worth of people—land managers and farmers—coming to look at Knepp to change their landscape. But I think it’s one thing coming to Knepp and saying, ‘I love what you’re doing, I think it looks fantastic,’ and then going back to your own piece of land and changing it to be wilder. So I think it’s a question of learning how to unlearn our attachment to manicured landscapes. It’s learning to get messy again, to get rid of our corseted, Victorian obsession with tidying up. We’ve got to just let go and allow these boom and bust cycles of nature to happen, allow free-roaming animals in the landscape that may do unpredictable things, and to take joy in the unknown to see what will happen, to wait and see and sit on our hands. Very, very difficult to do, but I think that is how we’re going to reach this place where we can give much more land to nature and perhaps even reach the half earth that E.O. Wilson talks about. So rewilding is as much about understanding how it works and how much it can produce for us—how much benefit it can bring us—as it is about understanding ourselves and learning how to change our mindset. It’s about rewilding us. Thank you. (Applause) Anyone brave enough?

Audience Member 1 (45:40): Thank you. When you make such a dramatic decision to make a change in your life, it can feel alienating or you can feel ostracized. I’m wondering if you experienced that and what fortified you?

IT (45:55): Yes, we absolutely did. I mean, we had buckets of sincerely disgusted letters from neighbors and we had poems written about us in the press. Sometimes it was very, very hard. And I think it was particularly hard for my husband because he was bearing the brunt of it because it was his family tradition. And so he was getting letters saying, ‘Your grandparents would be rolling in their graves,’ and things like that. But I think it was simply the wildlife coming back; we knew we were onto something really exciting. We were seeing things happening that other people perhaps from a distance couldn’t see. So we were seeing insects and we were seeing all these exciting things coming back. It wasn’t really until we got the headline species—the nationally important species like the turtle doves, the cuckoos and the purple amper butterflies and the nightingales—that I think got headline news and that helped simmer down the neighbors’ rage. I think it’s understandable though. As I say, if you’re used to seeing this very managed landscape and it suddenly turns into kind of a riot of ragwort and thistles and you’re thinking, ‘What the hell are they doing?’, it’s really unsettling. But now I’m 20 years into the project, that landscape has settled down a lot. And it’s still very dynamic and it’s shifting, but it’s not that sort of bang. And I think that has reassured people and even now we’ve had some letters—actually last year we had 2 or 3—of apology, which was amazing, from people who said, ‘I’m sorry we got this wrong and we wrote your filthy letter 20 years ago and now I realize you know what you’re doing.’ And I think people, again, and people’s perceptions, their aesthetic does change. And we had a letter quite recently saying, ‘I now think that your land is beautiful. I never thought it was beautiful, but now I think it’s beautiful, just in a different way.’

Audience Member 2 (48:04): Hi. When you first started, you talked about people you had to lay off, but I know that you’ve talked a lot about the businesses that you’ve developed on the land. Can you talk about how many you employ in the kinds of economic things that you do now?

IT (48:21): Yeah. So now we have 3 important income streams that have replaced the conventional farming. We still are farming in a sense, but it’s more like ranching. So I mentioned that we produce 75 tons of meat and I think we have to get rid of the industrial meat systems. And I think if we are going to eat meat, we need to eat much less of it and from systems that are truly sustainable and regenerative. And I think that livestock do have an important part to play in regenerating soil. So we’re seeing much more interest; I think there’s an interest in buying ethical meat. So we have 75 tons of meat per year that, at the moment, brings in 120,000 pounds. And most of that is profit because there’s no inputs, but we’re hoping to develop that and grow the business so that we will produce ethical, sustainable, charcuterie and other products from the animals. So that’s a very important income stream. And then we have all the agricultural buildings that previously just cost us an arm and a leg to keep the roof on. Those—we are now with capital outlay, admittedly—we are converting into a light industrial use, office space storage. And the businesses that rent those buildings off us, they employ 200 people, so that’s 200 people back in the rural community because of those transformed buildings. And then we have our ecotourism business. So we have so many people wanting to come and look at wildlife on Knepp that we’ve started an ecotourism business based on an African model. We thought, ‘Well, why not? Why not have safaris in Britain?’ It’s not quite the same weather, but we have open-sided vehicles and sometimes you’ve got rain slashing through, but no one seems to mind. It’s amazing. And so we have our big 5 with the exmoors, the longhorns, the tamworth pigs and the red and the fallow deer. And then we have a small five and all that kind of thing. And we do nightingale safaris with dinners and bat and moth safaris and it’s fantastic fun. And then we have glamping and camping and we have a little farm shop, which is growing all the time. So that ecotourism business last year brought in 360,000 and we make a 20% margin on that, which is way more than we could ever have dreamed of as farmers.

(50:59) So every situation obviously is unique. We’re in the Southeast of England, so we’ve got a dense population on our doorstep. We’ve got a need for people who don’t want to sit 2 hours in a traffic jam and want to have their offices in the countryside looking at pigs, diving for swan muscles. But I think there is a model there that other farmers on marginal land like us can follow. And I think the more urban we become, the more there is that need to connect with wild places. We see people coming back sometimes 5 or 6 times in a year; they’ll come back for a long weekend just as a break from the city. And so I think the ecotourism is just really beginning to increase. And the more people see truly wild places, the more that they won’t be fobbed off by places that pretend they’re back to nature and they’re not. So yes, for us it’s absolutely sustainable. We do still get a European subsidy for doing what we do. So goodness knows what’s going to happen to that. But we do know that we will, in the next 2 to 3 years, be fully sustainable as an enterprise.

Audience Member 3 (52:18): I read your book earlier this year and I thought it was tremendous. You said people and farmers come and look at your place. How many people do you think are really doing this, both in Europe and in North America?

IT (52:35): Well, I’m not so familiar with North America and actually part of the reason for coming on this book tour is really to try and explore and find out what’s going on over here. So I’m not really in a position to talk about the States with any authority. But in Europe it is a huge movement. It is absolutely huge. There’s a wonderful website called which shows some of the biggest rewilding projects that they’re involved in. They’re not even involved in all of them, but huge areas of the Danube Delta, of Portugal. In Europe, we got 30 million hectares of land being abandoned by the year 2030. So that’s the size of Italy. So it’s huge. So what do you do with that land? If you just abandon it and let it go, as I say, you’ll end up with closed-canopy woodland, which is very undynamic. It will be fine for carbon sequestration but actually not great for biodiversity. But if you do something like rewilding with the herbivores—and we’ve now got these apex predators coming back all over Europe—then you can do something really exciting. My husband’s involved in a project in the Făgăraș mountains in Carpathia called Foundation Conservation Carpathia, and that is establishing a whole gigantic mountain range. It’s called the Yellowstone of Europe; it’s going to be the biggest rewilding project in Europe. So really exciting. In Britain, we have another rewilding project called [inaudible] Connect, which is connecting big areas of wilderness in Scotland, and another area in Wales called the Summit to Sea Project, which is connecting the top of Plynlimon Mountain—which is one of the highest in Wales—to the benthic layer of Cardigan Bay. So from the mountain top to the sea. So really exciting things beginning to happen and I think we’re at a tipping point where just the landscape is really going to change for the better.

Audience Member 4 (54:36): I know you don’t have quite the same concept of public lands—public lands aren’t owned in the same way—but are there owners other than private owners in the UK that are starting to approach this?

IT (54:47): Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think the private landowners are currently at the forefront of this movement, particularly in Britain because it’s a very simple decision, in a sense, if you’re a private land owner to say, ‘I’m going to do this and forget the neighbors.’ But it’s much harder for an NGO, for a nonprofit to do it because—one of the big landowners in Britain is the National Trust, which has 250,000 hectares. So it’s a huge land holding and it’s really longing to rewild some of this land. Because this is in trust, it can really think long term, but it’s got a massive membership so it has to bring all its members with it. And it’s a big, unwieldy bureaucratic institution so it’s much harder to turn around that kind of organization. But they are beginning to, and I think it’s following the example of the private landowners who’ve just been a lot more agile on their feet. But yes, there is definitely a lot of interest and I’m hoping—God, I wasn’t even going to try and mention this—but post-Brexit, if we have a reasonable government at all, they have been going in a direction where they’re wanting to pay farmers for the first time. And I think it’s kind of to try and prove a point to Europe, which is still embroiled in the common agricultural policy where they’re still paying 43% of their whole budget on farming subsidies. So I think the route Britain has seemed to be going down is where we will pay farmers for the first time, not for simply producing food—irrespective of what damage that causes—but to pay farmers for all the other ecosystem services like soil restoration, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, all the other things we desperately need. And so that, again, will change the farming mentality. So they might not necessarily be rewilding if they’re on fantastically good soil, but that will be an incentive to encourage them to go into regenerative farming.

Audience Member 5 (57:02): Hi. Are there any ideas for rewilding a small urban lot?

IT (57:11): Yeah, we get so many inquiries about that, people who come and see Knepp and say, ‘We love it but haven’t got 3,000 acres to do it on. I’ve got an orchard, I’ve got 100 acres, I’ve got a garden.’ I even had an email the other day saying, ‘How do I reward my window box?’ And I think it’s a brilliant concept. And so Charlie and I are going to be working now on a book called The Wilding Handbook, which is going to try and put some of these things into perspective about how you can rewild large and small scale. I think obviously just stopping using chemicals is a huge thing, that’s massive, but allowing a little area of scrub, a messiness in your garden, again, a little bit of habitat. But I think one of the most important things is connectivity. I have a friend who’s with the BBC wildlife film—he’s a cameraman, very charismatic—and he has a garden, which I think is about probably a quarter of the size of this room, and he has rewarded it. But what’s most interesting is he’s talked to all his neighbors in his street and persuaded them to cut a little hedgehog hole in their fence so now you’ve got a hedgehog tunnel; you’re a wildlife corridor suddenly. And he’s persuaded one gardener—between them, they can create different habitats—so one has a pond, another has a beetle bank, they all have different things that contribute to the whole. And so they’ve got a park at the end of that street. So suddenly that park is getting much more interesting, much more wildlife in it. There’s an embankment, a railway embankment to the back, so he gets deer into his garden now and badgers and all sorts of things. And so if you can do that kind of thing, you suddenly go to a wildlife corridor in a street, in the middle of a city. And if you can connect that into the outside countryside, then that’s even more dynamic and rewarding.

Audience Member 6 (59:13): So I worked in environment for a few years and there was a particular wetland that we were trying to restore, but a huge challenge for us was invasive species. So I’m just wondering if that’s been a struggle for you and if you have any insight on strategies for dealing with that, that are sustainable.

IT (59:34): Well, there’s a wonderful book called Where Do Camels Belong and once you’ve read that you will be much, much more relaxed about invasive species. I read somewhere recently that the United States spent 56 billion [dollars] on trying to get rid of invasive species in a decade, and with no success. So that is a huge cost, a huge effort, huge amount of concentration on something that is going to fail. Why not spend that money on restoring habitat instead? And what we’ve seen, I think, at Knepp is that the fuller your ecosystem is—the more complete, the more dynamic, the more natural processes are actually going on within it—the harder it is for invasive species to penetrate. So you may at the beginning have to get rid of invasive species in a certain area or reset the balance or use your megafauna to come in and shift things dramatically. And I think that’s a really important thing to look at: what would the megaphone have been in your landscape? We know that camels came originally from America; maybe they could be incredibly important, especially in deserty areas. We know the horse came from America. What would be naturally in that landscape that could help you combat the invasive species and also get back this amazing dynamism that will push the invasives out and give a more balanced to native species. In England, we have so many invasives, I mean, we just got so confused with what is an invasive and what isn’t. You know, rabbits were from Spain. We have hares which have their own biodiversity action plan; they’re not native. We have an area that is a nature reserve; it’s very small, but it is for the preservation of the snake’s head fritillary flower, another invasive. We talk about the brutal American crayfish, which is destroying all our native crayfish, 4 species of native English crayfish. We had no crayfish until 1200. So I think we have to be careful and pick our battles and think in terms of novel ecosystems. Even Himalayan Balsam, which is, again, supposedly an invasive and we have huge headlines about Triffids taking over Britain, there are papers now written saying that actually the Himalayan Balsam has calmed down a bit and it’s a really important, late-flowering source for pollinating insects. So there’s benefits as well as disadvantages and I strongly recommend Where Do Camels Belong. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book.

Audience Member 7 (01:02:31): This is kind of a geeky farming question, but you mentioned that when you were initially starting out, you fenced your entire—or a few years in, at least—fenced your entire property. Without the apex predators, did you need to manage where your grazing and browsing animals were going? [inaudible]

IT (01:03:00): We are just one area of land surrounded by roads; we have to contain the animals or they’ll cause traffic accidents, and you name it.

Audience Member 7 (01:03:11): But within your property, without the predators to keep them tightly hurted and moving around, was that an issue or were you able to just kind of find the right number and let them do their thing?

IT (01:03:23): Well, that’s a very interesting point you make there because apex predators aren’t directly responsible for the population numbers. I think there’ve been papers written about how the percentage of animals, the mortality rate in, say, the Serengeti is only 10% caused by predators. What happens is that the populations boom and bust according to how much resources there are for them to eat and also disease. But in a situation like the Southeast of England, we’re not going to let them starve to death and overgraze and the population plummet and then rise again when the vegetation comes back. Nor are we going to let them die of disease. So we control the numbers; we keep them low enough to have that interest in battle with the vegetation. But you’re absolutely right, we are very much aware that because we don’t have that pressure from the predator, they aren’t bunching up and grazing in certain ways. Charlie did a little experiment on a bicycle trying to be a wolf and as soon as he was chasing the animals on a bicycle, they bunched up and they move very much in a defensive way. And so that will definitely be having an impact. Our animals graze very loosely, very relaxed through the landscape, so that will definitely be having an impact on the vegetation and maybe we should be doing something a little bit more dynamic with the numbers, you know, building them and then culling more so that there’s a bit more dynamism in the populations. But yes, it’s an interesting point. And of course, the more we can connect our land with others, and we hope one day—we already have about 600 acres of our neighbors who’ve joined us now and if we can get a road bridge, we could hopefully connect with a really big estate next to us too. And one day we might even be able to connect with the sea. So then you have much more dynamic systems and then maybe the animals will start even beginning to do some sort of migration as well. (Applause) Thank you very much for coming.

JP (01:05:43): Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle science series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band Say Hi and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer Jeff Larson. Check out our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews somebody coming to Town Hall, they get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind-the-scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our science series, listen to our arts and culture and civic series as well. For more information, check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall go to our website at

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