These are extraordinary times. We are witnessing events the likes of which haven’t been seen for centuries. At least, not in this country. I’m talking about white storks, of course.
For the first time in six hundred years, wild white storks are on the cusp of successfully breeding in Britain, something that hasn’t occurred since Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt. That may all be about to change, though. In West Sussex, two nests with a total of nine eggs are being eagerly watched.
What’s even more extraordinary is that twenty years ago, this part of West Sussex, the Knepp Estate, was a dairy and arable farm on the verge of bankruptcy after intensive farming methods had failed to keep it profitable.
The success of white storks at Knepp highlights the urgent need for rewilding in Britain. Transformed from a failing farm to a wildlife haven in the space of my lifetime, this 3,500-acre plot of land in lowland England is a beacon of hope in a time of ongoing crises.
“Rewilding,” is defined by Rewilding Britain as, “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself. It seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.”
Post coronavirus and Brexit, Britain will be making decisions which will influence the country’s future for decades to come. One of the most pressing decisions is what to do with our land once we’re free from what even the most ardent Europhiles would agree was a dismal Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The answer must be rewilding.
Since the Second World War, Britain has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows. Meanwhile, 80% of lowland heathland and 90% of English wetlands have been wiped out since the Industrial Revolution, with 75,000 miles of hedgerow sacrificed to sprawling cities and industrialised farms between 1945 and 1991 alone.
The results of this assault on nature are stark. Not only are there 40 million fewer birds in our skies today than in 1966, but 56% of Britain’s species are in decline, and 15% are threatened with extinction. Unsurprisingly, the UK was ranked the 29th lowest out of 218 countries, making our islands some of the most nature-depleted in the world.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Britain is, still, home to some of the world’s most precious wildlife and ecosystems, including 13% of the world’s blanket peat bogs. Despite being classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the world’s rarest habitats, some 80% have been damaged by human activity.
This is where inspirational case studies such as Knepp come in. Though an arable and dairy farm merely two decades ago, Knepp is now home to some of the rarest species in the UK. It has also seen numbers of common species boom, becoming a “breeding hotspot” for critically endangered migratory birds including turtle doves and nightingales, as well as the white stork.
Non-avian species have also thrived. The rewilded land boasts the largest population of purple emperor butterflies in the country, as well as 13 species of breeding bat. What’s more, since Knepp’s meadows and water courses have been returned to nature, many rare plants, such as adder’s tongue fern and the water violet, have been found here.
Letting nature take its own course is simple but incredibly effective. The key to Knepp’s success is that the battle between animal disturbance and vegetation success, considered the “two opposing forces of nature”, has been allowed to take place freely, with minimal human interference.
At Knepp, Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, and three species of deer are all allowed to roam freely. By grazing, browsing, and disturbing the land, these animals drive forwards the area’s rich ecosystem cycles, creating new verges and troughs for insects and small mammals to take advantage of.
Though the ecological successes of rewilding are hardly surprising, they are nonetheless remarkable, and offer the UK an opportunity to become, once again, a wildlife haven.
However, the environmental crisis we’re facing has dimensions other than ecological decline, including climate breakdown; rewilding has substantial potential here too. It’s estimated that the carbon storage of the land increased by 51% within the project’s first ten years, simply due to the soil being left undisturbed by damaging practices such as ploughing and intensive cattle grazing.
Soil is particularly important in our fight against the climate crisis, given that four-fifths of terrestrial carbon on Earth is stored in the soil. Yet, it is also perilously overlooked.
Over the last 150 years, half the world’s topsoil has been eroded from human activity, particularly intensive agriculture. Even more worryingly, the UN has warned that if current practices continue, the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years, while Sheffield University researchers have shown that UK farm soils have fewer than 100 harvests left.
Rewilding is key to encouraging healthy soils. According to the Royal Society, if the world’s farmlands were better managed, their carbon capture could total 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s more than the annual carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. A mix of improving fertile farmland and protecting its soils, combined with rewilding and rejuvenating less-productive areas could not only help to tackle the climate crisis, but also the looming catastrophe of mass-harvest failures.
As Isabella Tree, author and owner of the Knepp Wildland Project, writes in Wilding, “The great concerns of our time – climate change, natural resources, food production, water control and conservation, and human health – all boil down to the condition of the soil.”
The last point is of great importance in the present circumstances. As the authors behind the UN’s global assessment report of 2019 have recently argued, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases.”
Dr Peter Daszak warned that “Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today.”
The most acute immediate and long-term threats facing our species, as well as millions of others, result directly from human exploitation of nature whenever it suits us.
Only now are we beginning to understand and experience the disastrous consequences of forgetting that we fundamentally depend on the health of the planet on which we live.
The reason we’re in this mess is precisely because we thought we could plunder Earth’s “resources” – in itself an awfully anthropocentric term – with no repercussions.
The solution to the environmental crises we face is therefore a simple one: rewild the world. Share the soils, seas, and skies, and allow nature to heal itself, for its sake as well as ours.