Human Nature: Isabella Tree on Five Ways to Rewild Yourself

Posted on 9th April 2019 by Martha Greengrass

Suffering the long-term damage of unsustainable, intensive farming practices on their farm in Sussex, Isabella Tree and her husband took the brave decision to step back and take over. Wilding, Isabella's account of their experiment and the lessons their experiences provide for how we might learn to regain our lost wild country, really captured the public imagination this year, becoming an acclaimed bestseller and hugely popular Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month. Here she shares her top five tips for getting back out into nature and rediscovering your wild self.

We knew for sure that intensive farming on our heavy Sussex clay was pulling us under in the late 1990s. We could no longer compete with bigger farms on better soil. Then we met the visionary Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, and suddenly saw a way to turn our 3,500 acres over to nature. 

Vera argues that we have forgotten about the huge herds that would once have roamed our landscape. Bison, aurochs, tarpan, wild boar – along with millions of beavers - would have created a complex mosaic of habitats in the distant past, and this would have been hugely important for our ecology. By allowing these animals - or proxies of them, like old breeds of cattle, horses and pigs - free rein in our landscape once again, we can recover some of those habitats and restore biodiversity.

This is exactly what we’ve seen at Knepp. In just 17 years, we’ve seen populations of species rocketing, including some of the rarest in the UK. We’re now a hotspot for nightingales and turtle doves. We have the biggest breeding population of purple emperor butterflies. We have nesting peregrine falcons, all five UK species of owls, 13 out of the UK’s 17 species of bats. The list goes on and on. All these species have found us on their own – in the busiest, most developed part of Britain, close to Gatwick, just 44 miles from central London.

The transformation has been astonishing, especially given that this was, only recently, desperately depleted farmland. It’s changed the way my husband Charlie Burrell and I look at how our countryside is managed, with our mania for control and tidiness. Above all, it’s shown us how quickly wildlife can bounce back, if you introduce the right ingredients and let nature take the driving seat. 

Five ways to re-wild yourself:

1. Listen to birdsong

I’m still a hopeless birder but trying to improve. It’s about using your ears as much as your eyes - and this doesn’t come naturally to me. But it’s magical when you can start to sift through the white noise of a dawn chorus and pick out a few tunes you know. I love the mnemonics - ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-no-cheeeese’ for the yellowhammer, ‘I don’t know’ for the collared dove, ‘I really don’t know’ for the wood pigeon. Suddenly you’re aware of way more birds than you ever actually see, and they’re often in unexpected places, like abandoned buildings, railways or a patch of scrub. And also where they aren’t. Fields - our so called ‘green spaces’ - can be biological deserts. Simon Barnes’s How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher is a wonderful, reassuring introduction into the art, and The Collins Bird Guide App is indispensable. 

2. Get off yer bike

Very simple, this - but one that’s not going to appeal to the fitness fanatics. If you cycle, run, or even just walk fast through the countryside, it’s impossible to absorb what’s around you. So I’m trying to slow up, remove the ear-phones, amble, sit for a while or even lie down. It’s amazing what you see when your nose is to the ground - insects, worm-sign, lichens, mosses, tiny flowers - a universe we barely acknowledge because it’s usually beneath our feet. And once you stop, all the other senses - sound, touch and smell - have a chance to open up.

3. Walk in the dark

Walking in the dark takes this one step further. In 2002, the artist Andy Goldsworthy created ‘Moonlit Path’, a trail of pulverised white Downland chalk winding through dark woods near us in Petworth Park. For three nights around a full moon you could walk this path but only on your own, and without a torch, separated from the person in front and behind you by ten minutes. The experience - almost an hour - was beautiful but distinctly unnerving. Every sound, the snap of a twig, the hoot of an owl, was amplified in the darkness. It seemed to evoke some elemental sense of fear and awe, harking back to our ancestors. You had to trust your instinct and find courage to continue. Like life, itself, perhaps. Now, when I take the dogs out at night, I leave the torch behind. Even on my familiar route, with the trees looming around me, it’s a challenge, throwing up all sorts of weird thoughts but there are consolations, too, especially in summer - the knock-out scent of honeysuckle, glow-worms, and if I’m really lucky, the trilling of a nightingale.

4. Wild swimming

If rewilding yourself is about awakening the senses to nature, there’s no better way to evoke the sense of touch than wild swimming. From the sludge at the bottom of a lake, where your toes might encounter a swan mussel or an eel, to the feathery caress of pond weed, freshwater swimming is not for the squeamish. But it adds a new dimension to wildlife watching. You can get within inches of a frog or a dragonfly, and even water birds don’t seem threatened when you’re floating around with them at eye-level.

5. Micro-adventures in nature

This is, in part, a shameless plug for Knepp Wildland Safaris - our African-style safaris based in our rewilding project. It’s a wonderful way of immersing yourself in nature, learning about our native wildlife from experts, and thinking differently about how the countryside could and should look. But there’s also a host of wonderful adventures - from horse-whispering to foraging and wild medicine - that can get you into nature in Jeni Reddy’s brilliant guidebook Wild Times: Extraordinary Experiences Connecting with Nature in Britain


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