Not altogether sure how I’m following Canuck Carl, and this post of his has absolutely nothing to do with books, but I find the story fascinating. Read about Shrek the New Zealand sheep who ran away and lived in a cave for six years. Wild sheep are able to shed their coats each year, but because we have bred Merino sheep to produce wool and hold onto it until we come along and cut it off, that’s what Shrek did, and after six years he was carrying 60 pounds of wool around and suffering from heat exhaustion. See him being released from his self-imposed sweater captivity at Canuck Carl’s post. (You can see a video of the event at YouTube.)

I recently read Isabella Tree’s Wilding (due from New York Review Books this fall*) and was lucky enough to visit Knepp Castle in Sussex where she and her husband have been progressively rewilding their farm since 2001. This involves letting plants grow as they will and most importantly eliminating chemical fertilizers and the antibiotics in animal feed, while introducing grazing animals to mimic the putative prehistoric European environment. They have brought in English longhorn cattle, Dartmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs (all three the closest surviving relatives of ancient progenitors) and red deer. These animals look after themselves year round and graze the grass, plants and trees as presumably they would “in a state of nature”. The government prohibited the rewilders from going the whole hog and leaving any dead animals to decompose! But this is of course how things would/should be. Here are a few of the cattle after overwintering on their own, looking in fine fettle (photo taken on March 14th. You can enlarge it by clicking on it).

Observe the little bramble thicket in the right foreground. This is where oaks grow. Their acorns are stashed away all over in the ground by jays, and when they sprout they are quickly munched down by the grazing animals. Only those sheltered by prickly undergrowth can prosper and grow. Thus Mother Nature arranges things.

Any tree or tree limb that falls down at Knepp is left to decompose in situ. We were told that an oak has three life stages, 300 years growing, 300 years as a mature tree, and 300 years dying. There are plants and animals who need a dead tree in order to thrive, and some of these are quite rare. Supplies of hollow dying trees are generally a bit short — we humans tend to assume a tree without leaves needs cutting down.

Of sheep there are none at Knepp: they are notoriously efficient grazers and reputedly account for the fact that the Highlands of Scotland are basically treeless. (Nor presumably were they present in the European post-glacial environment.) The effect of ceasing to apply chemicals and allowing everything to look after itself has been dramatic. The diversity of insect life has increased immensely: in one research project 12,178 individual dung beetles from 13 species were collected, 11,666 from Knepp, and the rest (only 512) from the control sites, two nearby organic farms. The Knepp sample contained 11 different species whereas the organic farms had 6 and 8 species. This difference in numbers shows the effects of restraining our impulses to modify nature. Very encouraging, to me, was the speed at which species diversity increased: even one year made a big difference. Birds seem to know Knepp offers riches, and home in on the place on their migration. England is in the process of losing its nightingales, but in one field at Knepp we were told “In a month or so there’ll be 15 nightingales singing in this field alone”. Turtle doves have returned. It’s almost as if the information is passed around among these long distance commuters as they meet at some busy crossroads over northern Africa. A note about species diversity at Knepp can be found here.

Rewilding seems unambiguously good for the ecosystem. The trouble with intervention in a complex system is that we always run into unexpected effects. Yellowstone, wolves, and willows is one familiar example. There’s no top predator at Knepp. Should there be? It’s probably far too small to be able to accommodate a couple of wolves! It is, however, reassuring to know that once we humans have managed to eliminate our own species the world looks likely to be able to hit the restart button quite quickly and try again as if we’d never tinkered.

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Wilding was published in Britain by Picador in 2018, and has just come out there in a paperback edition.