Title: Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
Author: Isabella Tree
Completed: Jan 2022 (Full list of books)
Overview: Thanks to my wonderful friend Kate for recommending this book. As I started, it felt like a love letter to nature very similar to Sand County Almanac which I read about 20 years ago after going on a month-long snow camping with Kate. Two chapters later, the author started quoting Aldo Leopold to make many of the same points she was making. It was inspirational to hear there is still so much hope for nature to return to farmlands and support many of the species that have been missing for decades. At other times, it felt like a lot of lists: people involved in the project; species that have recolonized their farm; species they wish they could still recruit. Along with her enthusiasm for the work that borders on the same energy of crypto-bros, there were a few sections I wish went a little faster, but overall a very enjoyable read. It also reiterated points made in several other books I’ve read recently about the importance to our mental health of spending time in nature.
- On its own, a plant’s ability to extend its roots to explore for nutrients is limited. Partnerships with mycorrhizae expand that capability exponentially. 90–95 per cent of terrestrial plants in all ecosystems on every continent have mycorrhizal relationships. A single bluebell, for example, may be colonized by eleven or more species of mycorrhizal fungi, most of which have not yet been scientifically described. Without them, a bluebell, with its short, thick roots, growing in soils where phosphate is typically available at less than 1 part per 10 million, would die.
- mycorrhizae alert plants and trees to the threat of pathogens, and to predation by insects and herbivores. They can even stimulate the release of chemicals from the tissues of a tree to attract predators for the particular pest assailing it. And they can alert trees to provide intensive care for ailing individuals or vulnerable offspring, supplying them with a boost of nutrients as though plugging them into an intravenous drip.
- Fungi, often maligned as the harbingers of death for trees, are more often decomposers of deadwood than they are parasites, explained Ted. Rather than causing a tree to die, they rid it of the useless burden of dead tissues, breaking them down and creating another reservoir of plant nutrients accessible to the roots. In the process they convert the tree into a hollow cylinder, creating a stronger, lighter structure that can withstand hurricane-force winds – as testified by the ancient hollow oaks in Windsor Great Park that survived the storm of 1987, while younger, solid trees blew down.
- ‘In Africa you have vast herds of ungulates grazing together in the landscape. There are predators, of course, but population density itself is not regulated by predation.’ The size of grazing herds is driven primarily by the amount of food available. In times of plenty, with good rains and lots of vegetation growth, populations explode. In seasons when there is less to eat – notably, for Africa, during the dry season and droughts – they fall.
- ‘In particular, people believe these deaths are numerous and “unnatural” because there is a fence around the reserve preventing the animals from migrating in search of food – but cyclical die-offs happen even in the migrating populations of Africa. And in places where animals cannot migrate – like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, which has the highest density of predators in Africa – the dynamic is the same. Starvation is the determining factor. It is a fundamental process of nature.’
- In the Second World War the renowned forester Herbert Edlin noted that even during the Battle of Britain, over a long, dry summer, not one incendiary bomb, capable of burning through concrete, started a fire in woodland. In Carpenters Wood, part of Bisham Woods in Berkshire, the crater where a plane full of explosives came down in 1944 is still visible, marked by a memorial to the airmen that died. The explosion was heard tens of miles away. But the surrounding trees, including beech, just a hundred yards from the crash site did not catch fire.
- Our word ‘acre’ – related to ‘aecer’, the Old English for acorn – originally denoted an area with oak trees. Someone who had the right to ‘acker’ pigs – to fatten them on acorns – was called an ‘ackerman’ or, in German, ‘Ackerbürger’.
- Now, when ancient and medieval texts describe a place as ‘forest’ the modern reader visualizes a closed canopy, when in reality it was anything but. ‘Historians of modern forestry’, says Oliver Rackham, ‘often fall into the trap of assuming that it is the successor of the medieval Forest system, but the two have little in common but the name.’
- it drills into the ant mounds, breaking into the galleries and gathering up ants with a flick of a tongue four inches long and coated with glue. At rest, in order to fit inside the bird’s head, the tongue coils behind the skull, over the eyes and into the right nostril. The adult collects ants for its nestlings too – in astronomical amounts. In one study, carried out in Romania, seven green woodpecker chicks consumed an estimated 1.5 million ants and pupae before leaving the nest.
- There are about sixty species of native dung beetle in the UK, we learned. Unlike African dung beetles, which are famous for rolling away dung balls up to fifty times their weight over long distances, some using the Milky Way to guide them, most of our dung beetles are tunnellers – pulling the dung down into the soil to nest chambers that can be up to two feet deep, either near or directly underneath the dung site.
- Almost all the purposes for which coppice and scrub had been used in the past were suddenly satisfied by cheap plastic alternatives and over the second half of the twentieth century 90 per cent of traditional coppice in the UK disappeared.
- We have become a nation of gardeners, more interested in exotic flowers than natives.
- The tabloids revel in headlines about invasions and attacks and aliens taking over the world. But scientists increasingly argue that the impact of non-natives is vastly exaggerated and largely a matter of perception. Studies show that even Himalayan balsam – large, flowery and conspicuous as a new arrival – ultimately has negligible effect on the diversity and composition of riverbank vegetation, and is positively beneficial for native pollinators.
- Are exotics responsible, or are they merely taking advantage of instabilities caused by pollution, climate change and habitat degradation?
- in Wales, studies at Pontbren in the Brecon Beacons have proved that, by simply removing the sheep and planting trees, the rate at which water infiltrates the soil is sixty-seven times greater than on pastures tightly grazed by sheep, where their stiletto hooves compact the soil.
- in the 1600s, there are estimated to have been at the very least 60 million beavers in the continent of North America, from the Arctic tundra to the deserts of northern Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with beaver dams every hundred yards along most small rivers.
- Worm casts on their own provide a kind of super-fertilizer – a manure that holds up to five times the nitrogen, seven times the soluble phosphate, three times the magnesium, one and a half times the calcium and eleven times more potassium than the surrounding topsoil.
- He estimates that restoring the world’s 5 billion hectares (19 million square miles) of degraded grasslands to functioning ecosystems could return ten or more gigatonnes of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually. This, he claims, would lower greenhouse-gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades.
- Fresh air, long considered a tonic, is not just about avoiding pollution. Toxicologists are discovering that air provided by nature is loaded with microbes produced by plants, fungi and bacteria that are beneficial to health and boost the immune system.
- studies showed that even comparatively effortless pastimes like listening to music or watching TV are not as effective as nature at clearing the mind and recovering the powers of direct attention.
- In our case we are part of a family tradition that does not consider the land a saleable asset.
- We travelled the world to see wildlife. We campaigned to stop the felling of rainforests and the building of dams. Yet we were blind to what we were doing in our own back yard.