Wilding, by Isabella Tree
Isabella Tree's book is well on the way to becoming a classic of nature writing. That's partly because rather than just observing the natural world, Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have done a huge amount to restore wildlife to their land - largely by allowing natural processes free reign.
They live in West Sussex, on the historic Knepp estate. Old Knepp Castle was built in Norman times (the 1100s) by William de Braose. (Everyone was called William in those days). It came into the Burrell family in 1787, and John Nash designed Knepp Castle and the surrounding park for one of Charlie Burrell's ancestors from 1809-12.
Tree isn't afraid to dive into scientific detail, and one of the strengths of her writing is an ability to tackle complex subjects in an entertaining way - blending science and history with anecdote and personal history. That's clear right from Chapter 1, where we learn about ancient oaks, their roots, and the mycorrhizae that effectively extend the root systems.
The oaks and their mycorrhizae, suffering from ploughing and nitrates, are revived when Tree and Burrell decide to stop farming in 2000 after too many loss-making years. The parkland comes alive with wild flowers and insects.
Knepp's deer were "disemparked" - released into the open countryside - in the 1500s, but now fallow deer from Petworth are relocated to Knepp.
Inspired by Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, Tree and Burrell use grazing animals to create a biodiverse habitat. They want a biodiverse wilderness area of wood pasture. They bring in English longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies. Tamworth pigs churn up the ground, providing an opportunity for plants, and invertebrates like burrowing solitary bees. Wrens, dunnocks and robins take advantage of the disturbed ground, as do ants, with ant-eating green woodpeckers hot on their heels.
The most controversial aspect of the project proves to be ragwort. John Clare wrote of 'shining blossoms...of rich sunshine', but many today regard ragwort as an evil because it could kill livestock if they eat it in large quantities by livestock. Tree says grazing animals have lived with it for tens of thousands of years, and know to avoid it.
One of Knepp's conservation successes is the purple emporer butterfly, found in great numbers by butterfly expert Matthew Oates in the summer of 2013. Other wins are attracting nightingales and turtle doves.
Tree tells the story of trying to make the river that runs through their land, the Adur, more natural and less canalised. They'd really like to see beavers do a proper job of rewilding it, but that's a project for the future.
Since the publication of Wilding, white storks have successfully bred on the Knepp estate. It seems that the end of the book isn't the end of the story...there may be grounds for a sequel in a few years.