These two books about European natural processes are curiously connected, though I had no suspicion of this when I bought them. I was obviously in the mood for a sustained period of browsing on ancient species ecology and the prospects for reversing the mass extinctions caused by people. Looking for hope in the face of slow-moving ecological catastrophe, and finding it a little bit, but not nearly enough.
Isabella Tree, Wilding
This is a rightly celebrated book, but it’s heavy going in places if you’re expecting a superficial feel-good story of how Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell hauled on the reins to stop an agricultural disaster on his family’s land, and restored all the ecological niches except apex predators to the Sussex Weald. They definitely do this, but to understand how they do it you need to work at the ecology, the biology and the botany. Their story is inspirational, of the kind that makes you rush out and dig up the lawn, re-establish native plants and animals, and listen to butterflies mating all summer, for the good of the soil and for biodiversity. We did this once (ie we didn’t cut the lawn all summer) in the garden of a rented house, until the landlord came to complain that our untamed hayfield in the back was letting the neighbourhood down. The Knepp Estate is very big, but even they have problems with their neighbours complaining that letting land lie fallow, and not growing crops like everyone else, makes it look awful for visitors.
The Burrells have been able to restore their overworked land by luck and by following exceptionally good advice, but they also had the nerve (and an income boosted by occasional, fortuitous grants) to see their vision come to fruition over twenty-five years. The estate had been inherited from Charlie’s grandparents, who didn’t believe in keeping accounts and whose highest priority for land management seems to have been making sure it was available for the local Hunt. Four years after taking possession, in chronic debt, Charlie and Isabella decided that they could not keep pouring good money after bad, and sold off their cattle and all the agricultural machinery. They escaped the foot and mouth disease outbreak by mere months, but they still had a young family to feed, and the responsibility for the land, let alone the futures of the estate workers whose jobs they had managed to save from the wreckage (eleven men were made redundant as it was). So they decided to let the land do what it wanted to do, and to introduce some eco-relevant animals to help it along. Once you have the pigs and the longhorn cattle on site, you have to keep going.
The rewilding movement in Britain began from their efforts, and it is a terrific, hopeful story. Wilding is absolutely uplifting, but it’s dense. Take it in small doses, rather than gobbling it up in long greedy gulps like I did. Give it to an aspirational gardener for their birthday.
Tim Flannery, Europe
The Knepp wilding experiment took its inspiration from Oostvaarderplassen in the Netherlands, where the ecologist Frans Vera has led a long-term experiment to rewild 60 hectares of enclosed reclaimed land and populate it with animals and plants with limited human intervention, to see how the ancient landscapes of northern Europe could be recovered. That experiment went badly wrong in 2017-18, since the animals cannot migrate, so the land and grasses cannot regenerate, and there are no apex predators to cull the animal populations naturally, and the overcrowding led to a notorious winter of starvation for the animals until thousands were were humanely shot.
What the Burrells are doing has been on a much smaller scale, and with far fewer introduced species to fill the ecological niches. But the palaeontologist Tim Flannery asks, in his very enjoyable Europe. The First 100 Million Years, which aeon of European landscape are the rewilding projects hoping to recreate? From his perspective, you’ve got the Miocene, the Pliocene, the Pleistocene, even the Cretaceous to play with. What, exactly, is a rewilding project hoping to achieve? His remarks about his visit to Oostvaarderplassen are critical: of the obvious overpopulation of the enclosed space by too many animals – beautiful and remarkable though they all were – and the avoidable deaths from exposure to the railway line that passed through the territory.
Natural processes have to be allowed, and by forcing human standards on wild animals and land, nature is skewed. From the prehistoric perspective, we’re all food anyway. Europe is about how the animals and plants of Europe evolved, though Darwinian change, migration and introduction: vast ebbings and flowings over unimaginable excesses of time. It’s a remarkable book, and every chapter has the most extraordinary stories. Here are some picked at random:
- p65: a volcano beside a lake makes perfect fossils, because it belches out carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air and lurks just above the water’s surface. Anything flying low over the lake will be poisoned by the gas, and drop into the lake, sink to the bottom, and become a mud sediment.
- p91: the blind pink salamander of Slovenia is called the olm, or the human fish, and is the only European vertebrate to live its entire life in caves. They live very slowly. One has survived to twelve years without eating.
- p124: Deinogaleryx was the largest hedgehog ever to exist: it attacked and ate deer.
- p127: there is a layer of salt underneath the Mediterranean’s sea floor, in places up to one and half kilometres thick. This is the remains of the period when the Straits of Gibraltar were closed by tectonic action, and the Med dried up. It took over 1000 years, and became a violently inhospitable saline desert. 600,000 years later, the Atlantic breached a gap and the waters came flooding back in, cascading four kilometres down. (Readers of Julian May’s epic Saga of the Exiles series will know the real reason for this, of course.)
- p159: when species interbreed, heterosis can happen, producing ‘superfit’ individuals: in plants this produces stronger, healthier, tougher strains of grass, for example. In animals it goes a bit weird. ‘The Toast’ of Botswana was a very rare goat-sheep hybrid that grew faster and more strongly than his peers and was never ill. But in maturity he had to be put down because he was attempting to mate with anything and everything that moved, desperate to pass on his turbo-charged genes.
- p196: Cyprus used to have elephants the size of a large sheep.
- p218: spear-head design evolved significantly 33,000 years ago, when the points were carved to allow blood from the wound to escape, ensuring that the animals died sooner, handily close by, from blood loss, rather than very far away, over a long time, from sepsis, thus making them much easier to collect and eat.
I could go on for days. This is truly a book of wonders. I trust its science because the eminent Richard Fortey, formerly of the Natural History Museum, reviewed it with fulsome praise. I commend it as a Christmas present to keep loved ones quiet for hours at a time.