Unfencing Sharpham

I have a new and lasting respect for the humble bramble. A few feet into a bush so tall and thick a modest dwelling could be tunnelled out of it, and I feel as if I’m in The Day of the Triffids. Spiny stems wrap themselves around my legs, flaying my jeans; an overhanging branch plucks the hat from my head; yelps and curses come through the thicket as other trainees grapple with stalks an inch thick. A couple of weeks ago, the same plant was doling out juicy blackberries for our crumbles; now it’s trying to kill us. And fair enough: if someone came at me with loppers and a bolt cutter, I’d put up a fight too.

            In the middle of the fearsome tangle is our dubious prize: a wire fence. We are pulling it out to connect two fields on Home Farm, Ambios’ rewilding site. The animals that eventually graze here will roam freely, helping to disturb the ground and support a greater diversity of species. Our job is to snip away where wire is nailed to post, bully the posts out of the ground, and then somehow drag the fence itself into the open. After much concerted heaving, it finally slides free with an ease that defies the laws of physics – as if the bramble had suddenly let go for a laugh.

            The physical work is tough, but the emotional effect of removing a simple fence surprises us all. It comes as a shock – irrationally – that under the wire in the clear spaces between bramble, there is a simple continuation of land. And, of course, there always was. Two trees in the line, freed of the barbed wire-topped barriers that protected them from livestock, now stand in an open field. We are struck by a sense of unravelling, a rush of space and release. The uprooted fence lies in neat rolls to one side. Someone recalls that barbed wire was used to vicious effect in the First and Second World Wars and, looking at its coils of brutal teeth, I feel lucky my fight was only with a bramble bush. Beneath us, the River Dart gives a masterclass in natural boundary-making – an ever-evolving habitat in itself, and not a straight line or piece of metal in sight.

            We eat lunch under a veteran sweet chestnut in a corner (former corner, I should say) of the field, and I wonder what Philemon Pownoll, who turned the estate into parkland in the eighteenth century, would make of our efforts to rewild it. Prising staples free of the fence posts, I think also of the hands – much more recent – that hammered them in. Our piece of grunt work has tied us into the history of this landscape, which is also the history of how people have used it. Rewilding is not, after all, about fencing us off from nature as if we don’t belong to it, or pretending humans never existed. Our stories and the land’s are inseparable. It is about recognising the immense power of the natural world to renew itself and, in doing so, its potential to help us succeed in everything from sustainable food production to mental wellbeing – if only we will step back and let it. Less fighting bramble, more blackberry crumble.

            Evidence that a fence existed will gradually fade from the ground; it’s a fragment of Sharpham’s history now. All we did was pull out a scrap of wire from a small rewilding site, but as we walk home with aching muscles and blistered hands, we find ourselves also nursing an unexpected sense of legacy.

Written by Hester Musson, 2020 Autumn Trainee