Connecting our landscapes

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Recovery

Tree’s aim of connecting Knepp to a larger landscape full of nature was threatened last year by controversial development plans for 3,500 homes on a pristine site just across the border from Knepp.

Tree admits that a year ago they were full of despondency as the council had apparently already made up their minds. However, she shares the encouraging news that just recently all building projects in the district have been put on hold due to an order from Natural England that developments will only be approved if water neutrality can be demonstrated.

The area around Knepp also gets an extra level of protection, provided by an unlikely hero: a 5mm tall mollusk called the Little Whirling Ram Snail.

Thanks to the Buglife association, this snail is protected by international law. Natural England has reported that extracting more water from the Knepp Catchment could threaten the snail, putting the brakes on any development plans. “There’s an amazing David and Goliath story going on here,” Tree tells me happily.

Tree hopes the company begins to move away from the “build, build, build” mentality of the past decade, a mantra she describes as “very old school” but still rooted at the local government level. Instead, she says, we are moving towards a new kind of thinking: thinking that focuses on reclaiming nature, regenerative agriculture, connectedness and common thinking.

Re-wild

“I think things are starting to move,” she said. “I wonder if it is partly due to the COP[26], and partly because people are slowly starting to realize that it is, in fact, serious.

“Recovering from nature is not just the icing on the cake. It is something you do whenever possible, wherever there is room to do it, and something at the heart of the government policy. So that’s what we hope the trajectory of the trip will be.”

In order to help people take full advantage of any available space, Tree is currently writing a “book of savagery”: a kind of rewilding manual.

Originally envisioned as a small paperback book that one could take on a walk, it has since, Tree tells me, “re-wild and turned into a furry, out-of-control, voracious monster” – so it could make a few more pages than expected.

The essence, however, remains the same. Following Wilding’s success, Tree was inundated with an incredible response from audiences reacting to the story of hope that Knepp represents. People wanted to know how they could replicate what was happening at Knepp on their home turf.

Pond

Tree is very clear that you don’t have to own 1,400 hectares – or even one hectare – to use the wilding book. In fact, there will be an entire chapter devoted to the rewilding of cities. “Whatever little piece of land we have jurisdiction or stewardship over, we can do something positive with it,” she says.

She explains that the smaller the land, the more human intervention is needed to replicate the natural processes that are missing, due to space constraints – this is where the manual comes in.

Tree hopes that having accessible rewilding tips between the covers of a book will help people think concretely about how they can contribute to a web of nature restoration across the landscape.

“It comes back to this theme that seems to be possessing us right now, which is connectivity.

“If you have a back garden, you can persuade your neighbors to put a hole in the fence or the hedge, and it becomes a hedgehog highway. If everyone on the street avoids pesticides and herbicides, and maybe one person can have a pond, another a school of beetles, and then all of a sudden you have a chain of habitats that becomes really important.

Wild flower

While there’s still a long way to go to realize the interconnected landscape she envisions, Tree hopes society is moving in the right direction.

“Twenty years ago, reseeding was a dirty word,” she laughs. “You couldn’t have said that without people starting to cringe. But now it’s mainstream. Knepp may have paved the way, but he’s no longer alone in the rewilding scene.

In May 2021, inking diary published a survey revealing that a quarter of local councils in England intend to regenerate. I asked Isabella Tree what she thought local authorities could do to help restore nature.

For starters, she suggests local councils have an environmentalist on their team so they really understand how nature works: how green space can work well in cities, how a wildflower meadow is created and maintained, and why. they should consider leaving unmown road edges.

Pesticide free

She also has high hopes for the Environment Bill and its inclusion of local nature recovery strategies.

Tree believes this is an essential framework for improving connections between high value natural areas in different districts and working towards a national network.

Without a proper connection, isolated nature reserves and biodiversity hotspots like rewilding projects will begin to struggle with issues such as genetic inbreeding, she explains – but a designated recovery network could give species the flexibility and space they need to bounce back.

Tree would also like to see closer relationships between environmental organizations and councils. Ultimately, however, she stresses, change must start at the local level and it is up to the people who elect the councilors to demand the right thing by nature.

“There’s a lot going on around us in Knepp, many villages are starting to think green and go pesticide-free, so change is happening – but I’d like to see it gain even more momentum and become unstoppable.”

This author

Coreen Grant is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, with a particular interest in the intersection of nature and culture. She is an editorial assistant at inking diary.

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