Harry Mount

The problem with rewilding

Humans have shaped Britain for thousands of years


The government has gone wild. Under new plans, just announced by Environment Secretary George Eustice, farmers and landowners in England could be paid to turn large areas of land into nature reserves and restore floodplains. In place of the old EU subsidies, farmers will be rewarded by the government for how much they care for the environment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea — a return to a glorious, prelapsarian wilderness. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Eustice referred warmly to the poster boy of rewilding, the Knepp estate in West Sussex. I’ve been to Knepp and it is indeed glorious. Nightingales have returned, accompanied by clouds of Purple Emperor butterflies. There are even White Storks nesting in the trees.

But, as the Burrells, who own Knepp, openly say, those White Storks were introduced to the estate by their intervention. There is plenty of human intervention needed to keep the balance of nature going in a supposedly wild estate.

The new obsession with rewilding is part of the misguided Manichean view that nature is beautiful and anything done by man is ugly

It helps, too, that Knepp is in the prosperous southeast of England, with plenty of nearby, well-off holidaymakers to take wildlife safaris on the estate. Knepp, too, was among the first great stretches of British countryside to rewild — and it’s by far the most famous rewilding project. For all these reasons, Knepp has, admirably, prospered as a rewilding estate. It will be more difficult for those following in its footsteps in more remote parts of the country.

It’s admirable, too, that pop superstar Ed Sheeran is planning to plant ‘as many trees as possible’ in his own rewilding of his 16-acre estate in Suffolk. Of course, you should be able to do whatever you want with your own land — and with your own money.

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