Rewilding has become a familiar term these days, even finding its way into Radio 4’s long running series The Archers. The ‘everyday story of country folk’ has been keeping up with current trends from solar-power to kombucha production. Rewilding takes many forms but it is basically the much-needed regeneration of the land and environment, with restoration of bio-diversity.

Working with nature

One of the better-known projects is Knepp Wildland in Horsham West Sussex. The 3,500-acre estate was farmed conventionally for many years but it was a constant battle with heavy clay soil. The farm rarely made a profit. The owners, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell made the radical decision to abandon intensive, unsustainable agriculture and work with, rather than against nature.

The results have been phenomenal. Without the usual clouds and residues of toxic chemistry, the estate has become an oasis for wildlife. Wild-range live stock roam the land including Tamworth pigs, sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s plough’ due to their long hard snouts that turn over the soil. Visitors may be lucky enough to see lesser-spotted woodpeckers, turtledoves, purple emperor butterflies, nightingales or even a stork. Last year three pairs of white storks nested at Knepp and in March the first chicks hatched, reported to be the first born in Britain for over 600 years. 

Felicity Truscott at Wilding with her nest artwork
CREDIT: Beccy Mccray

Night singers

The population of visiting nightingales in the UK has declined dramatically over the last decades moving ever closer to extinction. Many have speculated upon the cause, from climate change to neonicotinoids and lack of insects. Much of the nightingales’ natural habitat has been cleared away. However at Knepp the birds are thriving and breeding. The estate is now home to roughly 2% of the country’s remaining nightingale population. 

The concept of the rural idyll remains very much part of our national culture and the nightingale plays a significant role, referenced by writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare. This is the image of our land that lures tourists from all over the world. And yet the reality is actually quite different. The UK has lost a full 50% of its biodiversity according to a recent report from the Natural History Museum and RSPB. That’s everything from plants and animals to fish and fungi. In terms of remaining biodiversity the UK came last in a list of G7 countries and only Ireland and Malta fared worse amongst EU countries.

Back in the 1960s biologist Rachel Carson warned that we were en route to a ‘Silent Spring’ with the rapid industrialisation of agriculture. Intensive use of herbicides and pesticides was killing insects, poisoning the birds and fish and damaging the soils. Carson’s writing was a major factor in the growing awareness of impending environmental catastrophe. In the decades that followed the trans global industrial machine has steamrollered those that stand in its way and we now find ourselves closer than ever to a world without a dawn chorus. 

Bird populations around the world are collapsing. Most of these are farmland species. The US has lost three billion birds since 1970. Loss of habitat is a common problem. Birds eating seeds pre-coated in neonicotinoids become anorexic in just a few hours and lose their ability to migrate. Bees exposed to the chemicals also become disorientated. German research in 2017 found that almost 77% of the country’s insects have been lost since 1989. The UK has lost 19 million pairs of breeding birds since the late 1960s. Most of these are farmland species but a 2020 report showed that woodland birds are also in serious trouble. Populations of some species have dropped by 94% since the early 1970s. According to the RSPB, “changes in the way our woodlands are managed are thought to be the main cause”.

Now the good news

This is all very disturbing and yet there is a positive side to the story. Despite the eager signing of ecologically suspect trade deals, there is also a powerful movement for change. There are smallholdings and farms all over the country moving away from toxic and destructive agriculture to practise nature-friendly, regenerative farming. The result is healthy food products and restoration of the environment. And changes happen very rapidly when we create safe environments for wildlife. Some of the species that are in danger of extinction have been seen to thrive in areas of regeneration and rewilding. Isabella Tree of Knepp Wildland said, “If it can happen here, on our depleted patch of land in the over-developed, densely populated south-east of England, it can happen anywhere – if only we have the will to try.”

And the best part is that you don’t have to be a farmer or own several acres to play a part. Everyone can be involved. 

Small-scale projects from a window box to an average size town garden can all contribute to the country’s devastated biodiversity, particularly when multiplied by thousands as the domino effect kicks in. Creating a compost heap or a pond can increase the benefits. Allotments can be wildlife havens if there are compost heaps and minimal spraying. 

Hastings Rewilders

Hastings and St. Leonards have a strong community of guerrilla gardeners creating wild life sanctuaries sometimes in the most surprising locations. Project Rewild-Hastings was set up to reintroduce a missing species into nature –children. The project aims to give children the opportunity to “fall in love with nature.” “We need to rewild our children…for the future sustainability of our planet.”  Schools have a critical role to play here. The Royal Horticultural Society has a campaign to encourage ‘School Gardening’. “Food growing can teach children about soil, nutrition, science and life cycles…” 

Beccy Mccray’s Mind Hive. Art in Nature at the Wilding Festival
CREDIT: Alexander Bratell

For some lucky folk the first taste of post-Covid freedom came in June with a visit to the Wilding Festival in Church Wood, Hollington. The festival’s creator, artist-activist Beccy Mccray said the aim of the festival was “to ease us out of lockdown and back into the open air; connecting people, trees and nature through creativity. We know that creativity and nature are essential to our well being and yet disadvantaged communities-such as ours in Hastings, which has the 13th highest child poverty levels in England, typically have the least access to both. For this reason the festival was completely free and in partnership with local people.”

World Nature Conservation Day is held annually on 28th July “to remind humankind about the importance of nature and the need to protect it”. This year will highlight the importance of forest ecosystems and their role in sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people.

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