Can we learn to live in harmony with nature?

LAND HEALER is a direct, real and honest book about the relationship between humans and the countryside.

In his role as director of conservation at Holkham Hall, author Jake Fiennes is working hands-on to heal the landscape through habitat restoration. His new book explores how we can collaborate with nature, ensuring food security for ourselves while providing ideal habitats for the many species with whom we share the countryside.

The book begins with ‘Hedge Porn’ – perhaps not a phrase you’d ever expect to see, however the reasoning behind this becomes clear as you delve through the pages.

TANGLED FOLIAGE: wild hedgerows line a little-used country lane

Jake takes the reader on an explorative journey through the British hedgerows. Using superb description, he conjures images of tangled foliage intertwining, decorated with juicy berries, with insects dancing and birds dining on the delights.

The reader is immediately introduced to the opposing ideas of hedgerow management: the standard short trim we are so used to and the more natural look which encourages life to feast, nest and thrive within the thick embrace of the hedge.

It surprised me to learn that there are about half a million miles of hedgerows in England alone, responsible for 5% of carbon sequestration on English farms.

RICH PICKINGS: birds and insects feast in our hedgerows PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Jake tells the reader that when he arrived at Holkham, the hedges were routinely cut to the familiar 6ft height, but within two years of being set free from this tradition were teeming with pollinator species and nesting birds, as well as providing a useful shelter for livestock.

The evidence in favour of hedgerows speaks for itself and opened my eyes to a whole world which exists within them.

I don’t want to say too much about the content of the book: I want you to read it for yourself and experience the real-time change in thought that I experienced. Instead I want to focus on the message of the book and on the author himself.

PLACE OF SHELTER: livestock can escape harsher weather conditions

We learn a lot about Jake’s childhood and his story of how he came to be so passionate about the natural world. With over 30 years experience working on the land, he has seen first hand the changes we have caused in our environment.

As conservationists and nature writers, myself included, we are used to gushing statements of love for the world around us. We tend to speak so poetically of nature, describing our feelings for it and how we intend to change the world.

This is the approach I naturally lean towards but Jake seems to have a different approach which took me aback slightly – and when I first encountered him at the Global Bird Fair, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

SPRING BLOSSOM: Fiennes has no-nonsense solutions to restoring habitat

However since reading this book and having conversations with him, I have absolute respect for his no-nonsense approach to restoring the natural world.

Jake doesn’t talk about changing the world with grand gestures or declarations of love, instead he speaks of small changes or ‘tweaks’ that can be integrated with existing farming and countryside management methods in order to create positive change.

Throughout his life, he has spent time exploring and being part of nature and through that he has gained extensive knowledge of, and a deep-rooted passion for, biodiversity.

BACK TO NATURE: living in harmony with the landscape PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Land Healer is not a book about ‘rewilding’; it is arguably impossible to rewild a landscape which is and shall continue to be so heavily farmed for our own food production. Realistically, with an ever-growing population, this isn’t going to change.

It is instead a manual on how we can work together to restore the landscape for dwindling species and create a countryside that benefits both humans and the other species which we are so lucky to live alongside. It is a book about empowering those who work the land and creating a society which lives in harmony with the incredible biodiversity surrounding us.

I didn’t expect it to, but this book changed my entire outlook on UK conservation and made me realise I had before been fairly ignorant to the vital work being carried out on my own doorstep.

FOOD SECURITY: no-nonsense ideas for future farming

For example, it changed the way I look at hedgerows and made me look out for things like mono-cropped fields when out driving around the Norfolk countryside.

Land Healer is one of those books that you find yourself reading the same page a few times to soak up all the information which is perfectly woven in among Jake’s experience, imagery and sheer determination to do something.

I highly recommend Land Healer if, like me, you want to further open your eyes to the world around us while reading a refreshing and honest account from inside the mind of someone who muddies his boots and has an up-close, personal relationship with each and every species within his landscape. In Jake’s words: “We can fix it.”

Charlie Bingham is a conservation engager, writer and podcast host based on the North Norfolk coast.