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Story of a farm’s rewilding is an inspiration for architects

Annalie Riches

Annalie Riches, founding director of Stirling-winning Mikhail Riches, finds a seed of hope amid our catastrophic loss of species in her recommended book of 2019

Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree, Pan Macmillan, 2019

I’ve got a personal interest in this subject because I own a small part of a 200 acre wood in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). With the help of a woodsman who teaches us how to look after it, we’ve been trying to encourage biodiversity. We’ve had it for 10 years and the habitat is now improving. Last year, the Purple Emperor butterfly came back. It wasn’t until I read Wilding that I realised how significant this was.

Wilding is a call to arms about how we need to rethink our relationship with the natural world. It’s a really engaging, easy-to-read book, the story of a dairy farm that wasn’t able to pay its way, despite investments in efficiency, because the margins for farming are so tight. At the same time, they had a wake-up call about the damage caused by contemporary farming methods when they realised these were to blame for the ailing condition of their 400-year-old oak tree.

The farmers took the brave decision to stop farming, which had relied on EU funding, and return their land to nature. They discovered there was also EU funding available for using the land to support biodiversity rather than farming it. That, and a grant from Natural England, enabled them to go ahead with their plan.

They realised that in the long run it wasn’t sustainable to simply leave the land completely to its own devices because pioneer species would grow and form canopies. In time it would turn into a dense, species-poor woodland. The only way to stop this happening was to introduce native grazing animals that could roam freely and effectively manage the land. This proved so successful that the animals themselves now yield some income. The owners also run tours of the site and have some areas for camping.

Over 10 years, they’ve managed to seemingly reverse a very destructive farming process of fertilisers and pesticides. It’s a very impressive story.

They did have local opposition, mainly related to expectations that the countryside should look neat and farmed. But this is actually a very recent idea – we only got rid of rotational crop farming after the Second World War, when we went down the route of pesticides and growing crops primarily to feed the animals. I went to see the farm documented in Wilding and certainly it is unkempt and covered in brambles and what we would call weeds. But it’s massively positive for biodiversity.

All architects should read this book. We’re facing a catastrophic loss of species. We’re sleepwalking into absolute disaster and I think we can all learn a lot from Wilding.

As architects, we always try to improve a site in terms of planting, but I didn’t think of this as a very urgent thing until recently. In terms of building, we all need to start giving land back for biodiversity. We’ve just started working on a great project in West Somerset where we’re building next to a bat foraging route. It’s a massive opportunity to improve biodiversity and design in such a way that we don’t spill light onto the route, but instead preserve insect life and darkness.

I’ve found the recent loss of species very depressing. But this optimistic book is a little beacon of hope that shows that if we all take some action, we can begin to make a difference.

Text by Pamela Buxton based on conversation with Annalie Riches

Read about four other recommended books:

Matt Barnett Howland of CSK Architects on In Praise of Shadows by Junichirõ Tanizaki

Owen Hopkins, director of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University, on Radical Technologies: The design of everyday life, by Adam Greenfield

Nick Newman of Studio Bark on On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein

Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, on How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett