Rewilding: Giving Portions of Farms Back to Nature

Grand emperor butterfly at Knepp Estate
Grand emperor butterfly at Knepp Estate. Photo: Knepp Wildland Project.

Over the past few decades, some farmers have discovered that returning part of their agricultural land to its natural, wild condition has great benefits not just for wildlife, but also for their crop yields. The process of rewilding farms is starting to catch on, and not a moment too soon.

50% of the Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture.

Croplands near Yellowstone River
Croplands near the Yellowstone River, Montana. Photo: USDA.

Today, 50 percent of the habitable land on the Earth is used for agricultural purposes. As humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers during the Neolithic Revolution, which began around 10,000 B.C., we began to clear forests, drain marshes, and plow up native grasslands to plant crops and let livestock graze. Thus, the process of destroying the habitats of native plants and animals also began.

We have destroyed 83% of the Earth’s wild animals.

Wolf behind a fence
Wolf behind a fence, Northwest Trek, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. Photo: U.S. Forest Service.

Over the centuries, this continued destruction of natural habitat, along with other factors including hunting, pollution, pesticide use, and climate change, has led us to where we are today with humans having destroyed 83 percent of the wild animals on Earth. Rewilding cannot undo this level of damage, but it can help restore some of the natural biodiversity of life on Earth, and be a win-win strategy for everyone.

A Story from My Family’s History

When my husband’s father bought a new farm in Ontario, Canada in the late 1950s, he and his brother shocked the neighbors by pulling out the hedgerows that had divided the farm into a patchwork of smaller fields. From my father-in-law’s point of view, those corridors of native trees, shrubs, and plants had been taking up valuable room that could be better used by planting corn.

He was not alone in this line of thinking: In the second half of the 20th century, fields became bigger, wet spots were drained, and wild plants (aka “weeds”) were eradicated with herbicides.

My father-in-law’s neighbors joined him in the stampede to industrial farming. Huge rectangles of soil were mono-cropped with corn, wheat, or soybeans, and were fertilized with chemical fertilizers, weeded with herbicides, and protected from insect damage by insecticides.

Wildlife paid the price. In Great Britain, the population of the gray partridge fell by 91 percent from 1967 to 2010, and nightingales suffered a similar drop around the same period.

Rewilding Farms and the Birth of the Modern Day Environmental Movement

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and the subsequent environmental movement of the 1960s and ‘70s sparked a renewed interest in organic farming. By the 1980s, farmers, conservationists, and biologists started to see the potential of rewilding, or returning marginal farmland to the wild.

Today remains considerable resistance to rewilding from the agricultural industry. However, the evidence so far is that achieving a peaceful co-existence with the natural world can actually improve a farm’s overall efficiency. In fact, a British study, as reported in the Guardian, found that when 8 percent of wheat fields are planted with wildflowers and grasses, yields remain steady. Bean crops see even better results: a 35 percent increase in yields – all because the natural predators of pest insects are attracted to the fields.

Here are some other successful examples of rewilding farms:

Knepp Castle Estate, Great Britain

Deer crossing the road at Knepp Estate
Deer crossing the road at Knepp Estate. Photo: Shazz.

One of the most successful rewilding projects has been undertaken on the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex. Owner Charlie Burrell inherited the 3,500 acre estate and for a while, he and his wife Isabella Tree attempted to farm its heavy clay soil using conventional methods, but with little success.

In 2001, they decided to surrender the management of the land and “give it back” to nature. They sold their farm machinery and brought in livestock animals who were as close to Indigenous species as they could find. This included Exmoor ponies who stood in for tarpan, the original horse, and Tamworth pigs who took the place of wild boar, as well as Old English longhorn cattle who assumed the role of the extinct auroch, a species that once roamed Europe.

Wild animals soon flocked to the estate of their own accord, including red and roe deer and a wide variety of bird species, some of which were close to extinction.

The estate’s cattle and pigs roam freely, rarely needing supplementary feeding, even during the winter. When the couple does farm, they do so organically, eschewing the use of pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Rewilding their farm turned a crisis into a long-term solution – solved by nature, not modern-day agricultural science.

As one point, the farm experienced an infestation of creeping thistle, which covered 60 acres and threatened to spread onto neighboring farms. But painted butterflies naturally came to resolve the crisis by laying their eggs on the thistles. When the caterpillars hatched, they devoured the thistles, and the next year the weeds were gone, never to return. Trusting nature proved to be the way to go.

Holkham Estate, Great Britain

Holkham Estate
Northern entrance to Holkham Estate. Photo: RN.j

On the east coast of England, farmer Jake Fiennes is hoping for a similar success on the Holkham Estate in Norfolk. Originally a marsh, the land was drained and turned into some of the most productive farmland in the country.

In the 19th century Robert Coke of Holkham pioneered many farming techniques, such as crop rotation, that later became commonplace in regenerative farming. But by the 21st century, Holkham Estate had become another industrial farm operation. Fiennes was hired to restore the land.

In his previous position as gamekeeper on the Raveningham Estate in Norfolk, Fiennes made sure to always “make space for nature.” He has turned 140 acres of wetlands that had been drained in the 1960s back into marshland. The result: bird populations skyrocketed.

He also planted 25 miles of hedges to provide valuable habitat for small animals and birds. Through careful observation, he figured out which spots would be best if allowed to grow wild, destroying the geometric precision of squares and rectangles that had been planted with single crops. Though he took one thousand acres out of cultivation, the increased yield on the remaining acreage made up for it.

Winter Green Farm, Oregon, USA

Farm Crew at Winter Green Farm
The farm crew at Winter Green Farm, Noti, Oregon. Photo: Winter Green Farm.

Winter Green Farm is an example of a well-established farm that strives to work harmoniously with nature rather than see it as an adversary. The owners see their farm as “a living organism” where all of the elements combine together to provide a healthy, holistic ecosystem. They actively work to create a welcoming habitat for wildlife, including turtles, fish, frogs and birds, as well as beneficial insects. Among other projects, they dug new ponds for native amphibians like red-legged frogs.

Wildflowers that other farmers would dismiss as weeds to be eradicated are encouraged to flower and attract insects, such as native pollinators and ladybugs, who control harmful pests.

The Farm Between, Vermont, USA

Highbush Cranberry
Highbush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) growing on the Farm Between, Jeffersonville, Vermont. Photo: The Farm Between.

When John and Nancy Hayden bought their Vermont farm in 1992, it was a typical small dairy farm, with almost every square foot in cultivation. The couple didn’t have any large equipment to farm the land, so they lets parts of the property revert to nature.

Long grass and wildflowers in the meadows and ditches, along with an increased diversity and volume of insects, encouraged the return of birds, including bobolinks, meadowlarks, and swallows.

Stream banks were allowed to return to their original wooded condition, with birches, willows and shrubs, which provided valuable habitat for birds, small animals, and native pollinators. In all, 14 acres have been turned into a pollinator sanctuary.

The Haydens also decided to turn their front lawn into an organic apple orchard, bordered by fruiting shrubs, including gooseberries and lingonberries. In addition, they’ve embraced permaculture, a type of food cultivation centered on perennial plants, such as fruit trees and bushes, which minimizes soil disturbance and reduces or eliminates the need for agricultural chemicals. For more information about how The Haydens farm, check out their book Farming on the Wild Side.

Rewilding Small Spaces

Rewilding is becoming an increasingly popular concept in Europe, with plans underway to turn broad swathes of under-utilized marginal farmland into wild spaces where native species, such as the European bison, can re-introduced. This is rewilding on a massive scale, but anyone with a small patch of Earth, whether it’s in the city or suburbs, or even an urban rooftop, can do their part to provide more natural habitat for local wildlife.

Even if you don’t have an entire farm, you can plant a thicket of fruiting bushes in a back corner of a yard. You’ll get a privacy screen while local birds get shelter and food. Instead of a wooden fence, consider putting in a row of mixed native shrubs for a hedge, preferably ones that flower at different times of the year to provide pollinators with a food source over a long season.

You can also turn a dry corner where grass won’t grow into a mini-meadow with drought-tolerant wildflowers. And if you’re dealing with an area that doesn’t dry out, consider planting native plants that do well in a wetlands environment. In addition, it’s always a great idea to take a high-maintenance lawn that’s planted with non-native grass and replace it with native grasses, wildflowers, and fruiting plants. This will create a healthier, more resilient ecosystem that gives local wildlife the chance to thrive.

Rewilding is still a modern concept to many, but it’s all about restoring part of the past. The move to standardize and control the land for agriculture and development has resulted in a severely damaged ecosystem and a staggering loss of life. Those who’ve taken a new path to improve their farms by healing the damage done by industrial agricultural methods have shown that not only is rewilding a way to heal the scars man has inflicted upon nature and save wildlife, but also a way to increase farm productivity.

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