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3 July 2023

Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree on the rewilding wars

The married aristocrats have created a haven on their 3,500-acre Knepp estate – but find themselves at the centre of a conflict plaguing rural politics.

By India Bourke

A silver-haired man strolls along a footpath on the 3,500-acre Knepp estate of Charles Burrell in Sussex, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. Driving past in a green Land Rover, Lady Burrell – better known as the author Isabella Tree – is delighted, and wonders aloud how long it will take the visitor to lose the towel as well. “Oh yes there it goes!” Tree exclaims. “What nicer way is there to spend a sunny May morning in just your wellies?” Burrell, our driver, raises his eyebrows.

The dynamic between this pair of married aristocrats veers during my visit between joyful, businesslike and mock-exasperation. Much like the rewilding trend with which they have become synonymous, their relationship pulses with productivity – and is responsible for establishing Knepp as arguably the most famous nature regeneration experiment in the country.

Of the two, Tree is the better known. Her award-winning 2018 book, Wilding, was about the estate’s transformation from debt-troubled farm to wildlife haven. Within policy circles, however, Burrell is prominent; he chairs an organisation formed to attract private funding to global nature restoration, and sits on the board of Rewilding Europe. “Charlie is very much the visionary and was behind the whole rewilding project in the first place,” Tree stresses over cups of lapsang tea around their kitchen table. “He’s the ideas man and I’m the scribe.”

As the conversation unfolds, a split in sensibility emerges. Burrell shows me a wetland created by beavers, a species whose reintroduction has alarmed farmers because of fears they help flood agricultural land. He favours broad-brush funding solutions and big initiatives. Tree, in contrast, while once “rebellious” enough to be thrown out of school, infuses her messaging with wonder, lyricism and the power of the particular. Her domain is their walled garden, which they are transforming into a drought-resistant, wildlife-friendly model of rewilding on a more intimate, accessible scale.

Modern Knepp may not have taken shape without their spread of character traits, Tree posits. “Because you’d grown up in Africa and in Australia, you could think at that big scale,” she says of Burrell’s openness to the conservation ideas he saw in the Netherlands in the 1990s. “If you’d spent all your life here at Knepp, surrounded by small fields, maybe you would have still made the leap – but I think it made it much easier for you to envisage that happening here.”

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The couple’s differences are a microcosm of the tensions that plague rural politics. Anyone with an honest relationship to British wildlife acknowledges that it is in crisis: bird species have declined by half since 2015, insects by 60 per cent in the last 20 years, and the soil may only be fertile for a few more decades. Yet battle lines have been drawn over how to respond. Questions over how much, where and in what manner nature should be restored are threatening to undermine the rural response: should conservation be intensive or hands-off? Should it be pragmatic and cautious or radical and bold?

The answers depend in part on the kind of land, the personality of the land manager, and the expectations around what kind of food Britain will produce and consume. For the journalist, author and Knepp-enthusiast George Monbiot, as much land as possible should be given over to large-scale rewilding and our diets should change accordingly, such as consuming less meat. But many farmers believe giving up so much land would threaten meat and dairy production, and that they “could never do on my farm what’s been achieved at Knepp”, as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters once tweeted.

The NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw told the New Statesman, in response to a query about the union’s current position on rewilding, that its “projects have a role in exploring new approaches to environmental delivery. But land isn’t infinite, and we need to strike a careful balance.”

[See also: Why rewilding isn’t just for toffs]

The Burrells hope that Knepp’s example can help resolve these battles and show how different needs can be integrated instead of held at opposite poles. They recognise that different types of land are suited to different ends, and stress that letting nature reclaim control of their former struggling farmland hasn’t ended their role as stewards. Instead, by introducing herds of native deer, cattle, ponies and pigs to act as proxies for extinct megafauna, they have regulated the returning scrub and recreated conditions in which British nature thrives. Endangered turtle doves now feast on seedlings exposed by rooting pigs, storks that look like they’ve come from the Jurassic era sit proudly atop towering oaks, and nightingales build nests in billowing bushes. An array of initiatives – from wildlife safaris to a nature-enhancing farm that will supply food to a shop and café – also means the estate employs more staff than ever.

Even locals who once denigrated Burrell for trashing his neat fields have been won over. “One woman who wrote Charlie a stinking letter in the early days, saying he turned something beautiful into an abomination, has apologised,” Tree reflects. “She wrote to say, ‘I understand and I now feel that it is beautiful.’”

The couple want to help others replicate their journey. Their new, co-authored The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding, Big and Small is an ambitious “how to” manual. Its richly illustrated chapters cover everything from funding sources to the benefits of garden ponds, while gold-embossed cover endorsements from Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch speak to rewilding’s growing popularity. (As do the Knepp-branded Emma Bridgewater mugs from which we drank our tea.)

But are the Burrells the right people to lead this politically sensitive trend? The rewilding movement’s progress has been plagued by associations with privilege and exclusion. At best, some argue, its projects represent a new kind of status symbol for the wealthy. At worst, they are an invitation for asset managers and anonymous foreign investors to push up the price of land, stop food production, reduce jobs and depopulate the countryside. The celebrity gardener Monty Don has criticised rewilding as a boon for “toffs” and landowners; the broadcaster and former vice-president of the Ramblers’ Association, Janet Street-Porter, has decried it as an attempt by the wealthy to return to a “fake past”.

The Burrells’ world is certainly a rarefied one. They met after attending the same private school, and live in a crenellated castle guarded by a statue of an ancient Molossian dog. Step indoors, and you are met with a scene out of an Enid Blyton adventure book: boots, sheep bones and exotic art are strewn with confident abandon on the flagstoned floor. Conceptually too, neither Burrell nor Tree are challenging capitalism’s relationship to land. On the right-to-roam campaign, for instance, which is now backed by Labour, Tree believes nature still isn’t robust enough to “unleash unfettered walking”. Yet the pair are adamant that attacking rewilding as an elitist project is a mistake.

Wealth-based tirades against eco-elites should be ignored, says Burrell. Instead, big money’s support should be seen as an asset. Britain, he insists, has “signed up to stringent goals for nature protection and carbon. How the hell do people think it’s going to happen? What seems so striking about these people that snipe and carp, and all these people that have to write inches of column: what do they think that actually means – physically?… One of the solutions is rewilding: it can be so useful and helpful, a cheap way to bring nature back to your landscape.”

Some large landowners may still be taking the wrong approach to restoration, he admits (such as planting ecologically damaging sitka spruce to profit from selling carbon credits), but Burrell maintains that greater transparency about what such schemes involve would allow the market to “take care of that”. Big brands who buy up the credits “are shit-scared of getting it wrong”.

Tree also has little time for class-based attacks. “If your agenda is ‘landed elite’, that’s a prism you see the world through,” she says. “You’re always going to get those sort of headlines in the Daily Mail [but] I think all you can do is just be absolutely upfront and honest about what you’re doing and how it works.”

In rewilding’s defence, Tree instead emphasises newly diverse ownership models, such as the “wonderful” Langholm Moor community buy-out of 5,300 acres in the south of Scotland. “I think the results speak for themselves and one of the things we’re very keen to get across in the book is that rewilding isn’t about excluding people from the land. If anything, it is about reviving local rural economies,” Tree notes.

Such support is welcomed by the Langholm Initiative team behind that acquisition. A spokesperson for it told me that the rush to buy up land for carbon credits and commercial forestry is spiking land prices, putting it beyond the reach of community purchase. “Land ownership is a powerful route for communities to shape their own futures and support must be in place to help them meet their aspirations.”

Isabella Tree and Charles Burrell’s approaches do complement. Could either have taken on rewilding Knepp alone? “God no!” Burrell responds. The couple thrash out their thinking as a pair – such as on the controversial decision to, one day, when their Exmoor pony herd becomes too large, sell meat from the culled animals. “Neither of us are religious, so you have to fall back on what you collectively think is right.”

Burrell and Tree alone cannot speak for the British countryside – a place where the politics of farming, rewilding and roaming is increasingly fractious. But there’s no denying that their open-minded, collaborative approach at Knepp sets a powerful example for those who wish to preserve nature’s future.

[See also: Experiencing nature is as important as literature]

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