Knepp Castle Estate © Richard Nevell

Rewilding? Benefit or just change?

Laura White
Laura White
Knepp Castle Estate © Richard Nevell

By Nick Boustead

I write this as a perspective rather than expertise, and as a small Devon beef and sheep farmer, one time organic registered. I have always been fascinated by landscapes and farming production and the end results of economies of scale.

Influential tomes in my early years were History of the English Landscape by W.G.Hoskins, Small is Beautiful by Schumaker and Five acres and Independence by John and Jane Seymour.

Rewilding has become a discussion battleground on several levels: the need for continued food production, tree planting to slow climate change, species diversity and regeneration, cleanliness of rivers and water purity and availability, increased herbivores (eg: beavers) vs increased predators (eg: lynx), meat eating (methane production) and veganism (increased soya for protein from the Amazon, more avocados when the trees use massive amounts of water in drier climates), massive eco-tourism of the countryside to replace the EU Subsidies?

Isabella Tree’s book, Rewilding on the Knepp Castle Estate is now well known, as are George Monbiot’s views in the press and television. Much action and work has happened in other countries to rewild, such as Holland, especially along their sea-coasts. I heard at an event last night that Adam Henson was asked to write the foreword to Isabella Tree’s book, which he did, but was returned as it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. He has to earn a living and pay rent.

Apart from politics in western Europe pushing for more public access, public ownership of soil (not land) and de-intensification of agricultural production, I suspect that economics and lack of availability of labour will have a major change effect in the direction of rewilding.

The average age of a UK farmer is 58/59 years, with much of the millennials having no interest in farming as a career and also no more immigrant labour to harvest vegetables etc. We have had 60 years of increased farm sizes, less labour and more mechanisation, not forgetting excessive agrichemical use, but that has reached a point where economies of scale and size do not guarantee a profit. The Knepp Castle Estate reached this point by their own admission.

What may happen is some degree of intensification; a tomato producer in Cheshire is under glass with many, many crops a year, electrical control panels monitoring light, water, temperature and mineral input and adjusting all the time, with hardly any labour involved. (I hate to think how much capital investment that involved!) I read of a Dutch farmer glassing over all of his 170 acres. Extensification is very suitable for poorer Grade 3 land and below, ex-industrial spoil heaps and much hill ground.

Grade 1 and 2 soils hopefully, from a food production point of view, will continue but stopping nitrate run-off into rivers and stopping topsoil erosion will be vital. Fenland has dropped nearly a foot since the 1960s with loss of soil organic matter despite being Grade 1 soil for arable production.

Much though the public and European legislation have disliked and banned genetically modified foods (GM), it is likely that ‘genetic editing’ of plant crops will continue to expand to reduce disease susceptibility and, frankly, it is already happening quietly right now. Much of the public will see rewilding in terms of biodiversity – more butterflies, beavers no doubt, kites and hen harriers etc – and the calmness of wild spaces for de-stressing and, of course, carbon capture.

In the end, what doesn’t change is the food chain still being dependent on insects and healthy soils with organic matter being in the 9-10% range. Unfortunately, interest in insects doesn’t register high in many minds compared with, say, seeing buzzards flying high, on an aesthetics scale. Nonetheless, insect variety and songbird numbers are now very lacking.

Trees and their proliferation are viewed as essential priority for carbon capture. Some recent research shows natural regeneration of existing woodland will still be more effective than new plantations in capturing carbon. However, trees may need 10-12 years establishment before they are effective and they don’t produce much income even after that time, except for logs. We still import 90% of our timber and 40% of raw food materials.

It would be arrogant to suggest how this might pan out. Only just over 1% of the planet’s water is fresh water rather than salt water and only (I think) about 12-14% of the planet’s soil surface is suitable for human food production, much of that in western and eastern Europe. Limited resources indeed.

The Soil Association and others are confident that the world can feed itself with low inputs, meaning there must be plenty of scope for rewilding, even if it is against our instincts as food producers.

We still waste 25% of our food by binning it so perhaps a little less consumption and wastage and single use purchases might help.

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