Photograph: Metfilm
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4 out of 5 stars

Nature is healing in this soul-enhancing, hopeful ode to the British countryside

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Longhorn cattle roaming an untamed landscape. Tiny bugs beavering away in a muddy microcosmos. Actual beavers doing the same in primordial waterways. You’d rub your eyes if you didn’t already know that this was West Sussex, a mild-mannered corner of England a few dozen miles from Gatwick Airport and the M25. It could be the Serangeti or, well, Narnia.

Welcome to the Knepp Estate, a 3,500-acre farm-turned-rural idyll created by writer and conservationist Isabella Tree and her bug-obsessed aristocrat husband, Charles Burrell. The pair, despairing of the intensive farming methods that had left their land denuded and them £1.5 million in debt, experimented with just leaving it all the heck alone. Tree wrote a bestselling book about their risky experiment in 2018, a kind of Peat Pray Love of ecological rebirth.

Charted by director David Allen over 20 years, in a documentary that envelopes you like a Ready Brek glow, there’s no end of misty, sweeping landscapes (cinematographers Tim Cragg and Simon De Glanville give the English countryside widescreen grandeur) and plenty of stirring, but never cutesy, wildlife. Reconstructions, time-lapse photography and subtle CGI take us back to the madcap early days when the pair just seemed a bit barmy and Tamworth pigs would ham-raid marquees at Knepp fundraisers in search of canapés.

It envelopes you like a Ready Brek glow

Knepp could easily be twinned with California’s Apricot Lane Farms, the subject of 2018 doc The Biggest Little Farm, a similarly uplifting tale of biodiversity that all Wilding fans should rush to next. Like that film, new (old) ways of thinking are introduced by an outsider with ancient wisdom. Here, it’s oak tree expert Ted Green – truly, this story is nominative determinism run amok – a man so dedicated to the power of bacteria and fungi spores, he refuses to wash. 

But Wilding is not just a hymn to the innovative power of eccentric-but-sage men in Barbours. Like The Biggest Little Farm, where a giant forest fire reasserts the unpredictable power of nature, there’s a threat here – albeit it comes wearing suits and wellies. Tree and Burrell’s free range thinking, and blooming ecosystem, complete with fields of invasive ragwort and free-roaming boar, is seen as a menace by bureaucrats and fellow farmers alike.

A less generous film could have asked who is the real disruptor here: those who try to maintain a broken status quo that leaves indigenous species facing extinction and tears up hedgerows like matchsticks, or a modest couple restoring the land to its natural state? Wilding isn’t that film. Instead, it charts an unexpected success story that leaves you hopeful others will embrace its lessons. Because, such has been its impact, these days you visit Knepp for camping, walks and even safaris. Just keep your snacks out of reach of the pigs.

In UK cinemas now.

Cast and crew

  • Director:David Allen
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