Deep in the heart of the English Countryside a strange experiment in rewilding has been taking place over the last two decades, an experiment that has never before been undertaken in the long history of our small island nation, and one which seeks to explore the untold benefits that returning our landscapes to the forces of nature can bring.
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At the epicentre of this work is the 3,500 acre Knepp Estate, consisting of a sprawling castle built by the architect John Nash, the Knepp Estate has been owned by the Burrell family for over 220 years and is under the current stewardship Charlie Burrell.
What’s unique about the Knepp Estate is it’s location, it’s history and its mission. The Knepp Estate is a world-first for the aristocratic estates of the British nobility: the first large scale rewilding project in England. It’s the first time an entire estate has been returned, as much as can be, to its natural state. And it’s creating a template that can be copied the world over.
How did Knepp’s rewilding mission begin?
The ecology of the Knepp Estate is described online by its owners as ‘not conducive to modern intensive farming’ and, like many large country estates across the UK, managing it proved challenging, generating vast debts and proving burdensome for Charlie Burrell, who inherited the entire estate from his grandparents in 1983. With weak soils, mounting debts and a farm that simply wasn’t productive enough to maintain the estate, the decision was finally made in 2002 to sell off the farm equipment and dairy herds and lease the land.
A small 350 acres at the core of the estate received some Countryside Stewardship funding in 2000 to restore it to it’s pre-farming state and… that’s when the magic began to happen. The sounds of insects buzzing over meadows of wildflowers returned to Knepp, a sound that had not been heard in centuries. And along with grasshoppers, bees and butterflies the natural processes of life itself began to unfold in the fields and meadows of the Repton park, the immediate parkland around Knepp Castle. It was an epiphany for Knepp’s owners.
Butterflies, owls, beetles, wildflowers, wild animals and all manner of flora and fauna native to the English countryside slowly begin to creep back in. Nature was taking over and it literally sowed the seed of a grand plan to turn the entire estate into a rewilding project on a huge scale.
The last decade and a half has seen this process accelerate to over 3,500 acres of land, the entire estate, and the landscape is now bursting at the seams with an abundance of wildlife that hasn’t been seen since on this scale before farming began there. Buzzards soar over open bushland and pastures of blackthorn bushes whilst ancient trees and hawthorn hedges sprawl over land where once they were trimmed and contained purely to demarcate the boundary lines of neatly ordered fields.
A countryside mindset change
One of the hardest challenges to meet is try to create a public opinion that supports rewilding of vast country estates, like Knepp, in the heart of the English countryside. A cultural diet fed to us over centuries of manicured lawns, rolling green hills and mature, well thinned woodlands have meant that we have a very specific, and treasured, perspective on what the English countryside should look like.
“In Englands Green and Pleasant Land” we have a very clear understanding in society about what our countryside should look like. “Nature, red in tooth and claw” has been seen as a force to restrain, constrain, something to civilise and keep at bay. Since the Romans came to Britain civilisation has been in a battle of dominance, seeking to claim every inch of the British Isles and subdue it.
How do we react when scrubland starts to take over; when the controlled farmed environment of modern England is allowed to be set free; to let natural processes do their work and to create an environment that exists for the benefit of all living things and not just humans.
Ultimately it comes down to one question: what would you if you came across a large, semi-wild pig on your Sunday walk through the woods?
Well, predictably, the idea of rewilding can take some getting used to.
The Knepp Estate is located in a busy part of lowland England, just outside London. It’s a densely populated part of the country and as such there are a lot of individuals with very specific opinions about how the countryside here should be managed.
And when hedgerows, boundaries, fields, grasslands and domesticated farm animals are removed this environment and replaced with nothing but nature, it can be disturbing for some people. They may view it as an abdication of our responsibility to manage the landscape. Wildly growing hedgerows, rampant weeds, nature surging forward where once trimmed borders and fields stood, clean and tidy but ultimately devoid of life. Some people find it frightening, especially when it hints at the wildness that once existed in its splendour before civilisation literally came to town.
The counter argument is that we have been managing the landscape intensively for a millennia and it’s not working out.
Britain’s wildlife has declined by over 56% since the 1970s. That’s half of our country’s wildlife, gone. Pesticides have been blamed for the devastating loss of our bee populations and major floods have become an annual occurrence – a consequence of modern farming practices. Almost every part of this country is intensively farmed but this isn’t the only approach available to landowners. Perhaps it’s time to explore a new ecology for farming, a new countryside economy for the way this can be sustained and a new respect for the wild creatures and plants that we share our countryside with.
And this is where the large scale rewilding work happening at Knepp is beginning to have a significant impact.
The return of nature
The return of nature to Knepp has brought back the wilderness to this corner of West Sussex and with some gentle encouragement from the estate these creatures can begin to make a home where once their ancestors freely roamed.
Just this year a group of 24 young storks were released into the estate to establish themselves in a project that aims to have 50 breeding pairs by 2030. The White Stork Project is a group of private landowners and nature conservation organisations working together to help the white stork return home to fly the skies of South East England for the first time in several hundred years.
Knepp’s owners, Charlie Burrell and author Isabella Tree have also introduced 350 English Longhorn Cattle (who are farmed for sustainable, free-range, organic meat) alongside Tamworth Pigs, red and fallow deer and Exmoor ponies. The animals are allowed to roam over the entire estate and they have their own beneficial impacts on the ecology of the estate. These creatures mimic the actions of action species that once roamed these lands long before humans had ever set foot on the landscapes that became Britain – the huge, fearsome Aurochs (an ancient species of cow) grazed the land in pre-history disturbing the soil and keeping it reinvigorated to support a healthy ecosystem.
This approach has been researched and tested in Portugal by Agricultural Scientist, Alfredo Cunhal. He describes in the Guardian Newspaper how animals are essential to help balance the natural ecosystem:
Animals are the key,” he says. “They are important for the whole ecosystem, as well as part of the food chain. They must be balanced with the tree system. Pigs provide digestion, and are good for the soil, they disturb the ground and fertilise the land. The natural fertility cycles work better with them. The pig is not a meat machine but a friend of nature.”Alfredo Cunhal, Agricultural Scientist
It’s an approach the Knepp estate seeks to replicate as closely as possible with Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs.
Whilst purists will argue the wild boar, still found in pockets across Europe, is the real champion of rewilding and a closer representative of species that once inhabited this land, we are still constrained in the UK, by laws that restrict such introductions. This applies to Knepp. As detailed on the estate website:
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 prohibits the introduction of wild boar into the project, so our Tamworth pigs have taken on the role of their indigenous forebear. An old breed, renowned for their hardiness, they have long legs and snouts, narrow backs, long bristles and a surprising ability to sprint for short distances as fast as a horse – very much like the wild boar.knepp.co.uk/tamworth-pig
It’s for this same reason that there are no apex predators at the Knepp Estate. Wolves and bears are not on the agenda for Knepp, though there are plans to try to reintroduce beavers, once the appropriate permissions and legal framework has been approved. So can the owners, Burrel and Tree, at Knepp claim that they are rewilding the landscape?
It is a topic of public debate that deserves attention. But we also have to recognise that the face of the Earth has been so radically altered by human activity that it would be virtually impossible to return any ecosystem to a state that existed before humans took over. There is even plastic in Antartica. And aside from the fact that rewilding means many different things for different people the natural world has been so influenced and constrained by the human forces influencing it that to rewild to a former time is impossible.
What Knepp is attempting is a new path to the one that has been tried before; a way of managing the land that allows room for nature and natural processes to exist. It’s an experiment that not been tried before at scale in England and it’s having surprising consequences.
Is rewilding financially sustainable?
The elephant in the room around a project like Knepp is what happens to the financial sustainability of an estate when you remove the farming functions that once formed the core of its business and financial income.
The answer to that involves a bit of entrepreneurial creativity. And that’s exactly what Burrel and Tree have done.
They have created a financial ecosystem of itself which supports the maintenance of the estate, including the employment of a full-time ecologist to study, research and support the changing landscapes, where once farm labourers were employed.
This financial ecosystem includes a glamping and camping site complete with shepherds huts, yurts and tree-houses that can be booked online.
A programme of safaris mean that visitors can, year round, get the chance to see some of Knepp’s Wildlife up close. And even though Knepp has given up intensive arable and dairy farming a rancher-style approach means that the estate can still produce 75 tonnes of pasture-fed, organic, free-roaming meat from the project every year.
And by creating an estate that is open to the public Knepp is working on two very important fronts. It’s allowing nature, not people, to act as stewards of the land but it is also creating a huge shop front, a template, for their version of rewilding, barely 45 minutes from London, to create a profile, to build an opinion and educate and inform the wider public about what can happen when we allow nature to take control.
The work doesn’t stop with wildlife reintroductions. The Knepp Estate is seeking to reintroduce the very hydrological processes that once shaped this landscape. Through its river restoration work the Knepp Estate is showing what can happen when allow the water to flow through the landscape as it naturally would.
This has numerous benefits for flood prevention as well as nature, as water is retained in the land and in the soil creating habitats for many invertebrates that support the food chain higher up whilst the retained water prevents dangerous torrents that could potentially flood human habitations further downstream.
The Knepp estate is more than just a refuge for wildlife, it’s a first step, a shining beacon in the darkening clouds of climate change and ecological destruction. It’s an example of what can happen when we make room for nature; it shows us that there are alternatives to the modern, fastidiously kept fields of intensive farming in the 21st century and it provides a call to action to all farm and land-owners that it is possible to manage the countryside in a way that benefits all living creatures and not just us.
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