Letting Mother Nature reclaim prime farmland
April 22, 2018 3:02 PM   Subscribe

 
A few years ago, daffodils almost killed a vicar, after he ate a bunch to enliven his Easter sermon.

You have buried the lede to a different story in this one.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:14 PM on April 22 [53 favorites]


Happy Earth Day and thank you for this lovely post.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:16 PM on April 22 [13 favorites]




I wonder how they deal with invasive plants (I assume that England has the same types of problems as we do in the U.S.).

Fallow land in my area would rapidly be taken over by scotch broom along the edges and false brome in the understory, with a sampling of various blackberries along the water courses.
Knapweed is a particular problem in non-irrigated pastures.

Which isn't to say this isn't a cool project, but certainly not as simple as "Just let it go and see what happens", at least not in my part of the world.
posted by madajb at 3:43 PM on April 22 [12 favorites]


An awesome project, but I'm in NZ and if I leave our land unmaintained, we just get a horde of invasive pest species: gorse, cathedral bell, old man's beard, buddleia, tradescantia, blackberry, wild ginger, passionfruit, broom, mice, rats, and possums.

Ok, if we leave it for long enough, then the māhoe will poke through the gorse, but long enough round here seems to be about forty years and then you just get māhoe.
posted by happyinmotion at 4:03 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


It was fascinating reading how they observed invasive plants growing and just left them alone to see what would happen. I loved that the field of thistles was ravaged by swarms of butterflies. Here's hoping my library can get the book soonish, as I'd like to read more about it.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:17 PM on April 22 [9 favorites]


I'm not going back to the website, because it is shite, but one thing in particular really irked me: There's a quote along the lines of how there's an old story that Britain was once completely closed-canopy forest and a squirrel could run along the tops of the trees, etc. The next line is "this is wrong, for several reasons", or some such, and then the article explains how this is wrong. Later, though, a picture uses the same pull quote about the squirrel, without further explanation. So, which is it, Daily Mail?
posted by yhbc at 4:20 PM on April 22 [7 favorites]


we just get a horde of invasive pest species:... blackberry, wild ginger, passionfruit...

Why does environmental devastation need to sound so delicious?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:22 PM on April 22 [19 favorites]


This sounds amazing. I wish I had the land for this.
posted by corb at 4:24 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


I hesitated to use a Daily Mail link, but it's a straight excerpt from what appears to be a very interesting book, so I hoped it would be alright.
posted by clawsoon at 4:26 PM on April 22 [6 favorites]


madajb: Fallow land in my area would rapidly be taken over by scotch broom along the edges and false brome in the understory, with a sampling of various blackberries along the water courses. Knapweed is a particular problem in non-irrigated pastures.

The weeds were one of the most interesting parts of the story: Immediately, everything is taken over by thistles. That must've been the most psychologically difficult part of the experiment: "Oh God, all we've managed to do is create the perfect environment for permanent thistle domination."
posted by clawsoon at 4:35 PM on April 22 [14 favorites]


This is an awesome article. Thank you for posting it. If anyone in the US wants to buy the book, incidentally, this seems to be the one link that allows US purchase.
posted by Slinga at 4:37 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Via the National Geographic article that Going to Maine cited above, a link to the project page at Rewilding Britain, and thence to the project's own website.
posted by hangashore at 4:45 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Fantastic story.

Georgia is some weird combination of forest and jungle. The weeds around here are called Pine tress. When I moved here an older guy I knew referred to them as the "weeds of the South" and I thought that was silly, "who doesn't like Pine trees?". Me, and anyone else with land, that's who.

They've cleared the land down the street twice since I've lived here for a commercial project. It's been probably a decade, but it is full on forest now, dense Pines, and you would never think it had been cleared except they're all the same size and there are no other trees.
posted by bongo_x at 4:51 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


> clawsoon:
"so I hoped it would be alright."

I liked it! Lovely photos at the link you posted and on the National Geographic page. Quite a large property at 3,500 acres. Thanks for sharing, clawsoon.

There's a 15 minute video about the project at the site hangashore posted.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 4:55 PM on April 22


This article by Charlie Burrell, the owner of the Knepp estate, goes into more detail about the rewilding project and makes it clear that it isn't just a question of sitting back and seeing what happens:
We cannot simply ‘leave it to wild nature’. As anyone knows, if you simply leave a piece of land with no interference whatsoever it will eventually end up in close canopy woods – i.e. when there is nothing present in the landscape to kick-start the system, all you will get is very species-poor habitat. This is what would have happened at Knepp had we done nothing. Introducing free-roaming grazing animals – obviously at low densities – can create the kind of competition between disturbance and vegetation succession that is hugely productive for wildlife, resulting in habitat complexity and structure variation – the ‘margins’ where most of life lives.
So the Daily Mail headline about 'letting Mother Nature reclaim prime farmland' is, predictably, bullshit. This is a carefully managed project and not just about letting nature take its course.

(It's also made possible by farm subsidies, which Burrell fears may be threatened by Brexit. Funnily enough, the Mail also fails to mention this, except for a vague reference to 'conservation grants'.)
posted by verstegan at 5:03 PM on April 22 [37 favorites]


bongo_x: They've cleared the land down the street twice since I've lived here for a commercial project. It's been probably a decade, but it is full on forest now, dense Pines, and you would never think it had been cleared except they're all the same size and there are no other trees.

It seems that part of the answer to "weed trees" is large animals. I wonder if there would've been large animals native to the American South who would've kept the pines in check.

verstegan: Funnily enough, the Mail also fails to mention this

You may be letting your dislike of the Daily Mail get in the way of noticing that its article was written by Knepp's wife. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 5:13 PM on April 22 [6 favorites]


Why does environmental devastation need to sound so delicious?

Except the birds get the blackberries, the wild kahili ginger isn't edible, and the banana passionfruit doesn't grow bananas. Also the cathedral bells are not actual bells.

There's nasturtium for salads but even then the seeds are toxic. Or gorse flowers for tea if you want to fight through gorse, but I'd really rather go to a shop and buy ice cream.
posted by happyinmotion at 5:16 PM on April 22 [6 favorites]


I really love this idea - at the very least as an experiment to see what happens and to learn from to apply elsewhere. The diversity of herbivores I think is really key here - they all impact the land and plants in different ways which provide different opportunities for wildlife and plants. I would love to see this type of experiment done everywhere.

It would also be wonderful if there are any Native knowledge left in the Americas to how the lands were managed before Europeans. I believe this is what was happening - that it wasn't just untouched forest, but instead actively managed from controlled burns, etc. It would be great if we could go back to that in parts so we could keep a variety of ecosystems (and not have everything revert to forest).
posted by evening at 5:31 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


You may be letting your dislike of the Daily Mail get in the way of noticing that its article was written by Knepp's wife. :-)

The Daily Mail editors are very likely to change around all kinds of details, such as the headline without bothering to get approval from the writer.
posted by Lanark at 5:36 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


I've spent enough time with 'sustainable' ag and seen enough 'old field succession', which is a thing and not a mystery to be instantly irritated by the framing of this. They're not providing truly large scale predation or grazing, both of which are 'natural' and they are precluding meaningful human management, which I'd argue is also kinda natural. They do not strike me as wise or well informed stewards.
posted by windowbr8r at 5:43 PM on April 22 [5 favorites]


I wonder if there would've been large animals native to the American South who would've kept the pines in check.

Not biologically native, being originally from Africa, but Native Americans.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:46 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


They're not providing truly large scale predation or grazing, both of which are 'natural' and they are precluding meaningful human management, which I'd argue is also kinda natural. They do not strike me as wise or well informed stewards.

According to the article, the land involved is a grand total of 5 square miles, in Sussex. "Truly large scale predation or grazing" is not returning to south-east England any time soon unless humans go extinct.
posted by kersplunk at 6:16 PM on April 22 [9 favorites]


A few years ago, daffodils almost killed a vicar, after he ate a bunch to enliven his Easter sermon.

HONESTLY what even goes on in the C of E.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:21 PM on April 22 [18 favorites]


It's a totally different scale, but I've got a patch of dirt at my place that was used as a driveway for years. I didn't need it, and it was ugly, so I went down to my local seed cooperative and talked to a very nice and knowledgeable person there, who sent me off with a few bags of seeds for native plants and wildflowers designed to re-start a local desert ecology.

Before the next time it rained, I raked the seeds into the ground.

And then nothing happened for a few months.

That was a little over two years ago. Now instead of a bare patch of oil-stained dirt next to my house, I've got a ton of wildflowers, and some really cool plants, and one thing that I think might be a tree but might also be from Little Shop Of Horrors. And nearly every time I go out in the yard now I see one of my resident bunnies out there, or a hummingbird, or butterflies. I've had to do a little weeding, and it takes some water, but it's incredibly rewarding to go outside and see birds and chipmunks hanging out in what used to be a car park.

It's exciting to see what happens with it every year. Springtime is always full of surprises; this year it was tall stalks with pink trumpet-shaped flowers that the hummingbirds love.

Anyway, my point is that you don't need a huge amount of space to re-wild. It can be really rewarding with just a little bit of land.
posted by MrVisible at 6:26 PM on April 22 [54 favorites]


This reminds me of a TED talk (bonus non-video article) about a guy who grew an impassable forest in five years. Previously, amidst various other interesting things.
posted by crysflame at 6:31 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


A few years ago, daffodils almost killed a vicar, after he ate a bunch to enliven his Easter sermon.
You have buried the lede to a different story in this one.

No, it was the children, not the vicar.
posted by unliteral at 6:37 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


He ate the children?
posted by bongo_x at 6:51 PM on April 22 [21 favorites]


Introducing free-roaming grazing animals – obviously at low densities – can create the kind of competition between disturbance and vegetation succession that is hugely productive for wildlife, resulting in habitat complexity and structure variation – the ‘margins’ where most of life lives.

This works if there is something to push the grazing animals around, like wolves or cowboys. Left to their own devices, they'll spend all their time destroying the riparian corridors and wetlands. It's very possible that it is being really well managed, but the excerpts don't make it sound that way.

The National Geographic article links to a youtube video about the floodplain reconnection and wetlands creation work that was done which is worth watching.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:56 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


...how the lands were managed before Europeans. I believe this is what was happening - that it wasn't just untouched forest, but instead actively managed from controlled burns, etc.

Similarly Australia. Leaving Australian bush to its own devices produces the ideal environment for bushfires and blackberries, among other things, it has been tens of thousands of years since the land here was unmanaged. There is rapidly increasing awareness of that here, which is encouraging.
posted by deadwax at 7:30 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


It would also be wonderful if there are any Native knowledge left in the Americas to how the lands were managed before Europeans.

Tending the Wild gets at this:
John Muir was an early proponent of a view we still hold today—that much of California was pristine, untouched wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. But as this groundbreaking book demonstrates, what Muir was really seeing when he admired the grand vistas of Yosemite and the gold and purple flowers carpeting the Central Valley were the fertile gardens of the Sierra Miwok and Valley Yokuts Indians, modified and made productive by centuries of harvesting, tilling, sowing, pruning, and burning.
I imagine the verdant wilderness of the rest of the US was also a product of thousands of years of human management. I believe 1491 also mentions the idea that the biodiversity of the Amazon was also the product of intentional cultivation. One interesting speculation in Tending the Wild is that humans replaced patterns of disturbance that extinct megafauna previously caused, ensuring the productivity of certain food plants.
posted by Mister Cheese at 8:18 PM on April 22 [15 favorites]


He ate the children?

Put them in a vicar, man.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:28 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


In my small backyard garden I try as hard as I can to do as little as possible, but because we live in a townhouse complex and therefore don't have any control over the lawnmowing schedule, the grass always gets cut too low, the soil is ridiculously compacted, and we are getting an awful infestation of khaki weed. So I spent this weekend digging up every bindi I could spot, dousing the area in iron sulphate, letting it dry, and then pitchforking the entire back yard to hopefully loosen and aerate. Dolomite lime is the next step, and then, like, ten bags of composted cow shit across the whole yard, and a big sign at the front gate saying "When you come to mow the lawn please raise the mower so that you aren't mowing pure dirt".

Hopefully after a furious three weeks of intensive, artificial interference with something as relatively straightforward as lawn grass, I'll be able to let mother nature take over again.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:54 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


The vicar is a bishop!
posted by unliteral at 8:54 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


They're not providing truly large scale predation or grazing, both of which are 'natural' and they are precluding meaningful human management

I think they have a different set of goals. They seem to be managing for biodiversity, not for grazing, predation, or whatever kind of other management you'd deem "meaningful."

Tending the Wild gets at this

Credit where credit's due: William Cronon's Changes in the Land was the first major academic work to counter the narrative of "pristine wilderness" by discussing in detail indigenous management practices.
posted by Miko at 9:27 PM on April 22 [9 favorites]


A few years ago, daffodils almost killed a vicar, after he ate a bunch to enliven his Easter sermon.

Well, this sent me down a rabbit hole. There's...more than one? And they all got articles? Slow news times in the C of E, I guess.

This seems to be some kind of vicar meme. Maybe vicars aren't allowed Tide pods.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:03 PM on April 22 [6 favorites]


I wonder if there would've been large animals native to the American South who would've kept the pines in check.

Giant Sloths and Beavers among other extinct megafauna.
posted by boilermonster at 11:47 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


So the Daily Mail headline about 'letting Mother Nature reclaim prime farmland' is, predictably, bullshit.

I think that's a needlessly negative approach to take verstegan. The whole area is only a few square miles - there just isn't enough space for the kind of apex predator which would have kept grazing animal numbers down in the pre-human past. So humans are filling in for the apex predator by culling the animals. It's not an reasonable take to regard this as being far more “natural” than the intensive farming that was previously being practised & apart from the culling nothing else is being done to the land, so from that point of view nature really is taking it's course.

Plus, making money from the meat is part of the point - it's still a working farm, just working in a different way.

This post reminds me a little of the permaculture movement, only without the crop species that a permaculture farm would put into the land in addition to the grazing animals - nut trees for a start. There was a fantastic documentary called “A Farm for the Future” (discussed here on Metafilter a decade ago) about a similar project in Devon which went much further down the permaculture route. (This led me down a small rabbit hole chasing after the subjects of this documentary, only to discover that tragically one of the partners died in a tractor accident last year & the farm in question has closed. It's website is gone, but the Twitter account @VillageFarmUK remains.)
posted by pharm at 1:23 AM on April 23 [9 favorites]


I'm totally seeing if this book will become available in my local library. If not, I will suggest the purchase. I have an unhealthy love of the kind of nature book the British do so well and this is up my alley.
posted by Kitteh at 2:51 AM on April 23


It would also be wonderful if there are any Native knowledge left in the Americas to how the lands were managed before Europeans.

If? Of course there is, and it's documented if you look for it.
I have a friend who works in forest management via fires, she gives conferences internationally and is currently at The Nature Conservancy. She does a lot of work with Native Americans to tailor fire management to local areas. Good way to manage a lot of the invasive species mentioned in-thread too – with regular fires, for instance, pine sorts itself out and underbrush can diversify.

I have a native and mostly-wild little garden just outside of Paris. Don't do much management of it other than taking care of the more invasive stuff so it's not *too* invasive. Have a little wild strawberry patch, loads of wild basil (so delicious), and enough dandelions to make salad throughout spring and summer. Got myself a raspberry bush this weekend, rubus idaeus, native to Europe (it's also a native plant in the Americas).

I get hedgehogs and birds as well as a hefty population of earthworms and wolf spiders. Bees start coming around April and reach a peak in August when the basil is in bloom, they're wonderful. Bumblebees and honey bees. Super easy to care for the garden as everything's native – I only water maybe a dozen times in spring and summer during dry periods. It all sorts itself out.
posted by fraula at 3:58 AM on April 23 [5 favorites]


We have a small backyard, and an earlier owner had put concrete over the whole thing. Over the years the concrete developed cracks, and the owner immediately before us had filled the cracks with flowers. It was lovely, and I spent a number of years trying to maintain\recreate her plantings. We had two rectangles cut out early; one for bamboo (yeah, I know, but it blocks the neighbor's driveway full of defunct cars and stays green all year), and one for a fig tree that is thriving in the microclimate behind the house. But those cracks -- they needed constant weeding and mostly me feel bad because I wasn't weeding enough. So I finally just let whatever wanted to grow there do so. It was wonderful! Not rewilding, by any means, but a dozen different kinds of grasses, growing high, waving in the wind. No chores, and such pleasure. As fraula says, "It all sorts itself out."

Note: in the last 3 years, many of our insects have virtually disappeared, as have many types of birds. It worries me quite a bit, but my new mantra is "wait and see."
posted by kestralwing at 4:41 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]


My wife and I bought ~25 acres of old, tired farmland three years ago, and we let it go as well. The only invasive we've had trouble with here is Japanese honeysuckle, and it's easy enough to identify and keep out. (Well, dandelions and red clover, too, but you can't fight them: they'll win every time. Also, they're great.)

I don't have much comment on the experiment except holy shit wildlife. The first year we were here, there were no fireflies. The second year, though, we had a number of them about. (I hadn't seen fireflies since I was a child, so this was really exciting!) Last year, though: breathtaking dancing stars and fairies all midsummer, outshining by far the sky.

I've also noticed quite a few bumblebees and monarch butterflies in this last year, and the surrounding forest is starting to move in: willows and cherries and hazel.

And, of course, the voles. So many voles. The bane of my garden's root vegetables.
posted by ragtag at 5:54 AM on April 23 [10 favorites]


Sounds like a fascinating story but I'm not reading in that racist, sexist shit-rag of a newspaper.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:26 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Europe used to have the 'set aside' policy in which farmers would be paid for allowing part of their farm to go fallow, to reduce overproduction and for environmental benefit. This was controversial to say the least but having parts of the countryside unworked is not that unusual - although a whole farm is.

However it's a whole different thing to have a proper managed wildflower meadow (for instance) than having a field full of thistles and other weeds.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:38 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


kestralwing: do you have enough space to build a bug hotel? Might be worth a go.
posted by biffa at 6:49 AM on April 23


biffa, that's a wonderful idea, and we'll certainly give it a try. We already have a home for mason bees to overwinter. (What worries me is that we used to have so many varieties of insects, especially pollinators, but they were rare last year, and I haven't seen any this year - very cold Spring, though.)

Thanks!
posted by kestralwing at 7:02 AM on April 23


I would love to do something like this, but I have only 3 acres so that isn't going to work...
Will look out for the book though, it sounds really interesting.
posted by Fence at 11:24 AM on April 23


"Not biologically native, being originally from Africa, but Native Americans."

What did Native Americans do to keep the pines "in check?"
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:41 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


You would want to talk to someone from one of the relevant nations or people who actively study this, but stuff like cutting them down or setting them on fire.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:54 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I recall reading that prior to European contact, metalworking in North America was not widespread, but that controlled burning was commonly employed for land management.
posted by ragtag at 1:04 PM on April 24


AFAIK you can cut down reasonably sizeable trees with neolithic tools if needs must, though I was thinking of people cutting down saplings and young trees with like handwidth trunks and so slowing the forest from expanding.

googling, there were nice descriptions of Maori methods using stone tools and fire to eventually fell large trees for oceangoing canoes.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:24 AM on April 25


Thank you for this wonderful post, clawsoon! And thanks to Going To Maine, hangashore , cichlid ceilidh, verstegan and Dip Flash for the extra information!
posted by Kevin Street at 6:33 PM on April 27


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