IIt must be frustrating for Jake Fiennes that reviews of his book like this inevitably begin with mentions of his more famous siblings. Jacob Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes is one of six children – his older brother is actor Ralph and his twin brother is Joseph. A more relevant family connection might be made to his cousin, the writer William Fiennes. Jake shares with the author of The snow geese and The Music Room an almost supernatural ability to conjure nature to one side, weaving human and animal life into a landscape with elegance and compassion. country healer is a heartfelt, often very moving book about agriculture; It’s also a celebration of the British countryside and a record of Fiennes’ strange itinerant life.
I first met him a decade ago while researching a play GuardianThe Country Diary. He was a game warden at the time, known for his radical ideas on ecology and biodiversity. Since then he has been Conservation Manager on the vast and beautiful Holkham Estate in North Norfolk, where his ideas on sustainable farming and landscaping have been put into practice on a large scale.
As wildingIsabella Tree’s bestseller on the transformation of the Knepp estate in Sussex (where Fiennes himself worked) from an over-exploited wasteland to a bio-diverse environment, country healer is at its core an appeal to farmers and policymakers to adopt practices that encourage the return of nature to our landscape. Tree’s book has had an extraordinary impact locally and nationally, from community rewilding projects to the recently announced government plans to rewild 741,000 acres of habitat in England. country healerthat is both practical and ambitious could shape the nationwide debate on agriculture as well.
The book breaks up persuasive passages that promote the virtues of what Fiennes calls “regenerative agriculture” with more personal chapters, in which he recounts his childhood in a wealthy but nearly destitute family who moved from house to house while his parents tried To make money with restoring crumbling houses. Fiennes was a sickly child, deeply dyslexic and more in the shadow of his brighter twin brother. In the wild he found himself first at home and then, after a brief foray into the nightclub scene, in Knepp and Raveningham, where he became a gamekeeper. In the heart of country healer lies Great Farm, a mixed farming property on the Holkham estate. It was here that Fiennes’ vision was best implemented and here – he only joined Holkham in 2018 – his work is already bearing fruit.
The “minor tweaks” that Fiennes recommends as part of the regenerative farming mantra aren’t immediately exciting on their own – growing hedges, not plowing to field edges, disturbing the soil as little as possible, using “cover crops” in winter. In combination, however, they are revolutionary because they can begin to reverse the terrible damage that industrial agriculture has wrought on the countryside. Farmers are not the problem here, Fiennes keeps telling us, they are part of the solution. What he wants is a wholesale shift from “Taliban farming” that “kills everything it doesn’t want” to farming that embraces the idea that “wildlife is just like the other produce on the farm: you it must be efficient and trend-setting “grown”. In this hopeful, intelligent and important book, Fiennes shows that, when approached correctly, wildlife-friendly agriculture can create a rural landscape that is both biodiverse, beautiful and productive.
Land Healer: How farming can save Britain’s countryside by Jake Fiennes is published by Ebury (£20). In support of Guardian and observer Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply