Born to be wild

The Wild Side
by David Annand
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Mass rewilding programmes across the globe are seeing vast tracts of land being returned to their natural state, with indigenous “big five” beasts – from jaguars in Patagonia to red deer in Sussex – spearheading Mother Nature’s rebirth. David Annand explores a brave new world of booming biodiversity

Wolves are on the prowl in Germany. Lynx stalk the mountains in Spain. Jaguars are haunting parts of Patagonia from which they had long ago disappeared. It’s news to quicken the pulse of romantics everywhere: the wild beasts are back. And we put them there.

From the north of Scotland to the southern tip of Argentina, a wave of massive conservation projects is restoring apex consumers to the habitats they once roamed, as more and more conservationists become convinced that it’s these large herbivores and carnivores – the ones at the top of the food chain – that are essential to maintaining a balanced eco-system.

The most startling example of this has been the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone National Park which sprawls across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. By the 1930s hunting by ranchers keen to protect their herds had eradicated wolves from the area. The effect of this was to take a huge amount of predatory pressure off the local elk which flourished, destabilising the whole system. Since the wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s, the cascading benefits have been far-reaching and transformative. Controlling the elk has provided carrion for everything from eagles to black bears, and given a boost to the beaver colonies, in turn revitalising the stream systems. The park is flourishing.

Wildlife has floushished at Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s - photographed by Hanna May

Following on from this success story, similar gains have been made all across Europe. Griffon vultures are once again flying above Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. Brown bears are lumbering about the Southern Carpathians in Romania in ever-greater numbers, and over in the country’s Danube Delta, thrillingly, the golden jackal is on the rise.

Unsurprisingly, the return of these charismatic carnivores is not always popular with local villagers, particularly farmers. But mass rewilding has the potential to be an enormous boon to an area in ways beyond the environmental upswing. Take, for example, the incredible vision for the Oder Delta on the Polish/German border. Over the years farmers have slowly withdrawn from this 250,000 acre network of lagoons and freshwater rivers, and already there has been growth in the local populations of elks, wolves, eagles and the European bison. Fish stocks are recovering, too, and the harbour porpoise is bouncing back. The plan is for the area to become a major eco-tourist destination, the “Amazon of the North”, and already enterprising locals are opening small hotels and B&Bs in the area.

This transition from intensive farming to eco-tourism has also been the story at England’s pioneering rewilding project, the 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in Sussex belonging to Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell.

Knepp Estate in Sussex is home to a 3,500-acre rewilding project - photographed by Charlie Burrell

“The key thing about rewilding is that you have to let go,” says Tree. “And we are such control freaks. It's ingrained in us. We have fixed ideas of what the landscape should look like. Neat fields. Isolated woods. Canalised rivers. Everything under control. It's quite a difficult lesson to unlearn that. We had an oak tree that had started to die back that was right in our sight line from the house. My husband Charlie's fingers were twitching to get at the chainsaw. But we were embarking on this project and we just had to let it be. And slowly your whole mindset changes. This thing that had been an eyesore slowly becomes a thing of beauty and naturalness. You notice that there's a sparrow hawk nesting in it. That there's a whole colony of short-tailed voles burrowing underneath it. There's bats and woodpeckers that are taking advantage of the hollowing-out process. And you suddenly realise that this dead tree is probably as full of life as it was when it was alive.”

Essential to the natural maintenance of their estate has been the introduction of Knepp’s “big five”: Tamworth pigs, old English longhorns, Exmoor ponies, fallow and red deer, all of which are allowed to roam free. The result has been a rejuvenated landscape and near-miraculous recoveries all across the estate including what is now the largest population of Purple Emperor butterflies in the UK and booming numbers of little owls. And the big five have been essential: 23 species of dung beetle were recorded in a single cowpat, manna to the beetle-loving little owl.

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Tamworth pigs have helped the Knepp Estate build the UK's largest population of Purple Emperor butterflies - photographed by Charlie Burrell
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A group of old English Longhorns, one of the Estate's 'big five', grazing in front of Knepp Castle - photographed by Charlie Burrell
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The Exmoor Pony, listed as an endangered breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, roams free at Knepp Estate - photographed by Charlie Burrell
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Red and fallow deer contribute to the flourishing eco-system at Knepp Estate - photographed by Gary Margetts

“That first summer I remember we walked out of our door and straight into wildflowers up to our knees, kicking up common blue butterflies and grasshoppers. The sound of insects was unbelievable and we suddenly realised we that we'd been missing the sound of insects. We hadn't even known that they should have been there. Our farm landscape had been silent. And then, of course, the birds came after the insects and the bats and it suddenly felt like we were in the middle of the Serengeti. It felt like we'd brought Africa to us instead of going off to Africa to look at wildlife.”

Isabella Tree

Up in Scotland, the Danish textiles billionaire Anders Povlsen has been buying up huge swathes of Sutherland and the Grampian, and setting in motion one of the most adventurous conservation projects yet: to restore 200,000 acres of the Highlands to its natural glory after centuries of over-grazing. In addition to planting an incredible 1.5million trees, this will involve extensive culling of the red deer, allowed to proliferate by landowners with stalking rights, to the detriment of the local eco-system.

A project on a similar scale is also being undertaken in Chile and Argentina, where former Patagonia CEO, Kris Tompkins, along with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, the founder of North Face, have spent vast sums buying up huge parts of the countryside. Their rewilding work has seen the reintroduction of tapirs, jaguars and giant anteaters.

Unsurprisingly, the potential environmental impact of these projects will be hugely beneficial to humankind. The natural process of reforestation will trap carbon and help flood defences. Depleted soils will be reinvigorated. Booming biodiversity will mean greater genetic resources for food crops and pharmaceuticals.

But the most telling impact might very well be existential. Just the knowledge that they are out there again – wolves, jaguars, bison – is news to make the soul soar. The feral animal bit of us, suppressed by our cossetted, shrink-wrapped existences, can’t help but prick up its ears. The wild beasts are coming back. And I, for one, am howling with delight.

Isabella Tree’s book Wilding is published by Picador. For more information on Knepp Estate visit www.kneppsafaris.co.uk