Nature Networks by Isabella Tree (first published in West Sussex County Times)

Imagine a beautiful Persian carpet. Then cut it into a thousand squares. What do you get? Not a thousand smaller Persian carpets but a thousand scraps of cloth unravelling at the edges. That’s what’s happening to nature in the modern landscape, the scraps becoming ever smaller as the threads begin to trip us up. It is causing the Sixth Mass Extinction – a catastrophic loss of biodiversity affecting the whole planet.

We can see the unravellings all around us if we know how to look. A patch of ancient woodland surrounded by a monoculture of arable is vulnerable to ‘edge effect’ – the drift of chemical sprays, exposure to wind, extreme heat and frost – eating away at habitat on its periphery. That single ancient oak in the middle of a field of wheat has its roots assaulted by ploughing every year. The fine fungal filaments – or mycorrhizae – leading off its roots in search of nutrients are drenched several times a year in agricultural chemicals. The tree can no longer communicate underground with other trees. It is like a lone elephant in a zoo, deprived of the society of its herd, doomed to die alone.

One might think that wildlife can travel between isolated pockets of nature and, certainly, birds and some flying insects do. But many species, from fungi and wildflowers to earthworms and stag beetles, cannot. Small mammals such as hedgehogs, dormice and shrews are exposed to huge risks crossing inhospitable landscapes with no food or cover, criss-crossed by roads. At the same time, small islands of habitat become a honey pot for predators like foxes, badgers and domestic dogs and cats.

Many species need access to different habitats at different stages in their life cycle. All species need contact with other populations to preserve genetic diversity. And, crucially, without continuous habitat, species cannot travel.

Thankfully, it seems, we are waking up to the emergency. The Environment Bill is due to be enacted this autumn and local councils will soon be required by law to produce nature recovery networks.

Rewilding, as our project at Knepp has shown, proves how quickly nature can bounce back, if we let it. Regenerative agriculture can provide nature-friendly food production and a permeable landscape for wildlife. Rivers can be restored and treescapes reconnected.

We can mend the carpet. We can all play a part. Together we can create a landscape that is sustainable, biodiverse and a joy to live in.

Learn more about Knepp Castle here.