Wild Things Column: A new haven for nature

Bill-clapping furiously, a large prehistoric-looking shape glides smoothly over trees on long black and white wings.

It joins a flock of 17 White Storks circling the Kent and Sussex countryside. The White Stork, for years a staple on chimneypots and nest platforms in France, Germany and Spain, is back in Britain.

On Monday May 6 the White Stork re-established itself as a UK breeding species when a pair of the birds traditionally associated with human birth produced young of their own. Three White Stork chicks hatched in an oak tree nest on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, eventually becoming the first of their kind to fledge successfully here for 606 years.

Wild Things: A rediscovery of nature

Thirty storks imported from Warsaw Zoo formed the Knepp stock in 2016 and four years later have produced six young altogether.

This latest triumph for a bold, pioneering experiment proved the gamble taken by Knepp Estate owners Charlie Burrell and wife Isabella Tree had paid off. In 2000 they abandoned loss-making farming, sold machinery and livestock and allowed 3,500 acres to go wild. They returned the farm to nature and called it Wilding, introducing Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, English Longhorn cattle and deer.

River restoration, pond creation and soil improvement followed and scrub and weeds were allowed to grow. At a meeting to explain their intentions some neighbouring farmers were incredulous, some sceptical and some openly hostile. Government quangos approached for loans wavered and prevaricated.

But no one could ignore results. Knepp developed the largest populations of rareTurtle Doves and Purple Emperor butterflies in the UK. Skylarks, Woodlarks, Lesser Redpolls, Peregrine Falcons and Ravens all breed. Red-listed Nightingale pairs reached 34 while all five British owls are resident, along with record numbers of moths and 13 of the UK’s 17 bat species. Future plans include Beaver introduction.

Wild Things: A rich and diverse ecosystem under threat

Grants were finally received while visitors, produce sales and renting outbuildings to light industry create steady income for the couple in a model for other struggling farmers.

How this brave pair transformed their ailing farm into an award-winning nature haven is recounted by Isabella in a gripping, prizewinning book which should be read by every nature lover and farmer.

She invites more farmers to follow their example, claiming too many farms produce surplus food with much of it wasted.

Wilding by Isabella Tree is published by Picador price £9.99 paperback.

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