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Three weeks of glorious sunshine have broken with a deluge. A morning of persistent rain has washed away any petrichor sweetness — the sodden countryside now smells vaguely cabbagey — and thunderous clouds glower overhead.

Yet the landscape spread before Isabella Tree, as she leads the way through mud and puddles, is almost savannah-like in character. Chattering songbirds dart between outcrops of thorny scrub, herds of deer resemble antelope grazing the pasture in between and, as we pause for a second at the top of a raised wooden viewing platform, there it is: the whispered turr-turr of a turtle dove.

It is hard to believe that this land — part of Knepp Castle Estate, where Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have developed one of the world’s most daring and controversial rewilding projects — is less than 50 miles from central London. Or that just 18 years ago, the ground beneath our feet was a neat patchwork of arable fields.

After giving up conventional farming in the early 2000s, Tree and Burrell removed 70 miles of internal fences, introduced small herds of free-roaming herbivores, including English longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs, and then stepped back to allow nature to reclaim their 3,500-acre estate.

The results were transformational: Knepp is now home to the country’s largest population of rare purple emperor butterflies, 13 of the UK’s 17 species of bat, and more than 600 invertebrate species; turtle doves, a bird that has seen its population plummet 96 per cent since 1970, have returned in significant numbers, with 23 singing males recorded at Knepp last year.

“It has been astonishing, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the biodiversity,” Tree says. “We know that we’re restoring our soils, we’ve doubled our soil carbon content in less than 20 years . . . but without nature connectivity and land restoration, all these species at Knepp can’t spill over into the surrounding landscape and colonise elsewhere because there just isn’t the habitat for them.”

Over the past two decades, Knepp has become something sought-after and scarce: an environmental success story. Since Tree’s bestselling account of the project, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, was published in 2018, she and Burrell have been approached by 75 TV and film crews looking to adapt the book.

The project’s milestones now feature on the national news, while policymakers, campers and wildlife enthusiasts have rushed to visit. But the praise has been far from universal. Early on, she and Burrell were inundated by complaints from locals outraged at Knepp’s hands-off approach to ragwort (the yellow wild flower which is defined as a “harmful weed” by the government but is also known to support at least 177 species of insects).

“I had a letter this week, actually, from a woman — a ‘Yours sincerely, disgusted’ letter — saying: ‘I loved everything about your book except for the ragwort chapter,’” Tree says. More widely, there are significant numbers of farmers, and even a few conservationists, who believe that rewilding does more harm than good.

At a time when governments and communities are grappling with the intertwined crises of climate change and ecological collapse, Knepp has come to represent a beacon of hope — but also a nexus of societal and environmental conflict.

We squelch onwards as another rain shower arrives to admire some white storks perched like finials on top of nests high in the trees — the results of a successful reintroduction programme, and among the first breeding pairs in the UK for more than 600 years. On the way, we chat to two of Knepp’s volunteer litter pickers.

“When lockdown was released and people were allowed out, the feedback was so amazing, people were just thrilled to be out and about,” Tree says. But an increase in footfall meant a dramatic rise in litter and incidents of dogs chasing the animals. “We had 10,000 people [visit] in less than three months, and we just weren’t set up for it.”

It’s a delicate balancing act. Tree admits she is firmly against any move to extend England’s right to roam laws. “At the moment we’re just hammering our tiny little nature recovery areas and wildlife . . . doesn’t have a chance.” But she is keen to promote the importance of public access to nature, and pragmatic enough to realise that Knepp depends on it.

Already, they offer a full calendar of events, from butterfly safaris (£50 per person) to rewilding workshops (£195 per person); a warden is soon to join a staff that comprises the equivalent of 49 full-time roles, and I’m shown a cluster of farm buildings that will be converted into a shop and restaurant, alongside a new car park and signposted walk.


Menu

Jeremy’s Restaurant
Borde Hill Gardens, Haywards Heath RH16 1XP

Squid with pappardelle, green olive, tomato, basil £12
Chilled asparagus and almond soup £7
Lemon gnocchi with courgette flower, curd, marjoram, Swiss chard £18
Wild sea bass with scallops, heritage beetroot, watermelon, coconut bisque £26
Large sparkling water £3.25
Total (inc tip) £74.53

Site visit over, we set off in the car for lunch near Haywards Heath — and Tree explains her choice of restaurant. Jeremy, the proprietor, has been a friend of the couple since the early 1990s, when he owned a pub close to Knepp.

“We used to supply him with ice cream, cream and yoghurt back in the day when we were farming,” she says. “There was one night that went down in history, when his sous chef said our delivery hadn’t been on time, or something, and Charlie said it had. They got into an argument and eventually Jeremy said: ‘There’s only one way to work this out: you’ll have to wrestle.’ So he set up a circle of flaming torches in the garden, and Charlie, who was then still playing rugby, and the sous chef, who was also a rugby player, wrestled,” she laughs. “I think the chef won.”

Jeremy, thankfully, has mellowed into a congenial host. As Tree and I are led past tables of well turned-out lunchers, I realise we are rather underdressed in our almost matching blue shirts and jeans.

“This feels very, very odd,” she says, smiling as we settle at our table, “I don’t think I’ve been in a restaurant or a pub for over five months.” Tap water seems a bit ascetic in the circumstances and the wine list is sadly off-limits (Tree has an afternoon Zoom meeting and I’m driving); we settle for sparkling water.

Like other companies, Knepp has taken a financial hit from the pandemic. The ecotourism side of the business, which is budgeted to turn over £800,000 this year, has made a loss of £300,000 because of the forced closure of the campsite and safari tours, although Tree is quick to acknowledge their relative good fortune.

During the first lockdown both of their adult children were at home and attention turned to the development of a new website to market pork, beef and venison from the estate, set up with the help of their son, Ned, and his girlfriend, Lia. “We ate an enormous amount of meat because they were taking beautiful photographs — they make an uncooked heart look appetising,” she says. “Now the website’s up and running, we can go back to vegetables!”

As if on cue, some appetisers arrive: tiny squares of (and I’ll have to quote the waitress here) “tarragon and ricotta frittata, with a courgette salad and pecan crumb”.

Our conversation would not endear her to many vegans, but then Tree has been here before. Three years ago she wrote a Guardian opinion piece that challenged what she saw as the oversimplification of the veganism argument and provoked a furious backlash.

“I think vegans have done an amazing thing, getting us to think about where our meat comes from,” but, she says, plant-based systems that use only vegetable compost depend on transporting this material from cities, where it mostly ends up, back to the countryside at a “huge carbon cost”.

So what are her principles when it comes to food? “I won’t eat meat, usually, unless I know I can trust the source it’s from — here I know they’re very good about where they source their meat from,” she says. “I’ve chosen sea bass because it’s locally caught, but there’s a lot of fish I now wouldn’t want to eat: cod, probably — definitely not tuna of any description.”

What about squid? I ask, suddenly fearful for my starter. “Squid, I don’t know,” Tree replies, bobbing her head as if in deliberation, before flashing a forgiving smile. “It’s a minefield! You have to have a PhD in every food item to know whether you are doing the right thing. I think that’s what I was trying to get across in that article — that by simply switching from dairy to almond milk, you could be doing even more damage.”

My squid, as it happens, is delicious and served with pappardelle, tomato, basil and green olive sauce — somehow much more than the sum of its parts.

“I don’t like provoking just for the sake of it, but if there’s something I really think needs to be said, that is misunderstood or being misrepresented, then I just can’t help myself,” she says, stopping to dip her spoon into a bright green bowl of asparagus soup. “I think it’s important not to let people frighten you.”

Tree is straightforward, engaging and fun — far from the caricature of fey dilettantism that her detractors may wish to paint, although her background is unquestionably grand. She and Burrell moved in to Knepp Castle in their early twenties, when he inherited the estate from his grandparents.

“It was a pretty forbidding house to begin with, and Charlie’s grandmother was pathologically mean, so the curtains were indestructible — even the clothes moths turned their nose up at the curtains — and they would never quite meet in the middle,” she says. “We had to drag the house kicking and screaming into the 20th century.”

It was a happy childhood in rural Dorset, as much as nominative determinism, that pointed Tree towards a career as a travel and nature writer, and ecologist. “I was very rebellious when I was younger and I set up a pagan alternative with my friend, at [convent school]. We had a den in the woods where we used to dress up in robes and worship deer antlers and things,” she laughs. While her upbringing was the epitome of aristocratic privilege — her grandparents included the great American tastemaker Nancy Lancaster and the 10th Duke of Devonshire — Tree was always aware she had been adopted as a baby.

I ask how her life might have been different had she remained with her birth mother (whom Tree met before her early death in 2002), but it’s a question she doesn’t quite answer. “There’s a funny sense of objectivity, I think, if you’re adopted because you grow up sort of knowing your life has spun on a sixpence and you’ve ended up on a trajectory that’s completely different to what it could have been. I think it gives you a sense of fate, you can’t square it otherwise . . .” she says. “I’m not describing it very well.”


There is a natural pause with the arrival of our colourful main courses: lemon gnocchi, with bright green pea shoots and a stuffed tempura courgette flower for me, and Tree’s sea bass, with its vivid accompaniment of scallops, beetroot and watermelon.

We circle back to the issue of food, and some of the most frequent criticisms of rewilding: that by taking large swaths of land out of cultivation it threatens both food security and rural heritage. In Wilding, Tree highlights the enormous problem of food waste, and the fact that many farmers “like ourselves” have been driven out of business because of falling commodity prices as a result of subsidies and overproduction.

As for the cultural question, “actually, what you’re seeing in Europe is that it reinvigorates those villages that are being abandoned”, she says, citing Faia Brava, a community-led rewilding project in Portugal. “We’ve got to think in terms of novel ecosystems and how we can weave our history into a viable future.”

The rewilding movement grew from a theory developed in the 1980s and 1990s which asserted that, until the megafauna of the Pleistocene era (such as mammoths, mastodons and sabre-toothed cats) began to die out, most of the planet was covered with a shifting landscape of grassland and scrub rather than closed-canopy forest, as had been the prevailing belief.

What early rewilding projects — such as the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, or the Oostvaardersplassen reserve in the Netherlands — sought to do was recreate those early conditions. “It’s a spectrum,” Tree says. “The bigger the area, the less management.” At Yellowstone, there is now a complete “suite of species”, while at Knepp, in the absence of an apex predator, the herbivores still need to be culled.

One logical endpoint, and already the focus of ethical debate, is the de-extinction of megafauna. “I think at the moment the idea of cloning a mammoth, it’s problematic . . . That money could be much better spent on restoring habitat and protecting the species we have already that are about to fall off the cliff.”

Back to reality: Tree has to dash to her meeting, yet another related to Knepp’s campaign against plans for several new housing developments nearby. Not only are the sites home to several endangered species but, she says, are crucial as wildlife corridors connecting the estate with nearby woodland.

It’s an illustration of the government’s conflicted approach — on the one hand developing an ambitious environment bill, and on the other aiming to relax planning rules for greenfield sites, she adds. “I think there’s also a very unhealthy relationship between developers and the Tory party, both at national and local level,” Tree says.

There is no question that Knepp has an enormous advantage — its proximity to London, the fact the estate is a discrete block of land, not to mention the family’s private wealth — but Tree believes that if the government’s new agricultural policy is implemented well, aspects of Knepp could be adopted by functioning farms across the country.

In time, perhaps, there might even be less need for species-focused reserves. “Eventually, I see conventional conservation and rewilding being the same thing, it will be the same approach and one day we won’t need nature reserves at all because we’ll have connected them all, and populations will be thriving and we won’t need to protect anything,” Tree says, laughing as she ties a neat metaphorical bow.

So, you’re an optimist? “Yeah!” she replies, before qualifying: “I am today.”

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