Futures Forum: Rewilding: the return of nature to Knepp
The project has been a real hit:
Futures Forum: Rewilding Britain > restoring intensive farmland back to it's natural and uncultivated state - and becoming financially sustainable
The FT went in search this weekend:
Rewilding revives a country estate
The Knepp Estate ceased farming to become a natural habitat that attracts wildlife, environmentalists and campers
Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell © Alexander Christopher Fleming
How best to describe Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree? The custodians of the 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex, home to the UK’s largest lowland rewilding project, are certainly landowners — although they consider themselves primarily environmentalists — but they are also educators, entrepreneurs and, perhaps increasingly, impresarios.
In 2000, the couple took the radical decision to give up on Knepp’s arable and dairy farm, which they had tried and failed for years to keep profitable, to pursue an experimental process of habitat creation. They laid off 11 staff, removed 70 miles of internal fences and introduced English Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and fallow and red deer to roam freely. Cultivation of the land was stopped over a period of six years and the transformation was dramatic — the landscape changed from monotonous fields to grass plains, copses and scrubland, harbouring a rich diversity of plant, insect and bird life — and public interest bloomed.
While Tree prepares me a glass of homemade elderflower cordial in the kitchen at Knepp Castle she lists the stream of farmers, environmentalists, government advisers and NGOs that have been knocking at their door this summer. Then there are the tourists booking into Knepp’s glamping site and others who go on “safari” tours of the estate. “We’ve sold over £100,000 worth of safaris,” Burrell explains later, “and the season’s not even over.”
There are good reasons for this summer’s crowd. As the UK hurtles towards Brexit, the environment secretary Michael Gove and his policymakers are racing to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), while farmers and landowners — aware that support payments are likely to be reduced — are looking at alternative uses for farmland. There is also the recent publication of Tree’s book, Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm. But perhaps, above all, amid the seemingly relentless bad news Knepp offers something positive: the flourishing of imperilled species such as turtle doves, nightingales and purple emperor butterflies.
From the kitchen, where an open doorway frames views towards an enormous lake, Tree leads the way through a dining room and into the central hallway of the house. “This is where it gets a bit like the Pitt Rivers,” she says, pointing to displays of arrows, each with different heads — for catching fish, birds, pigs, humans — that the couple collected in Papua New Guinea, where they were married in 1993. We duck into the library, a relaxed space decorated with 20th-century art, and meet Burrell in his office, where huge maps of the estate are arranged across dusty-green walls.
Knepp Castle, designed by John Nash in the early 19th century, has been in Burrell’s family for more than 200 years and he took over the estate in 1987. Selling was not an option, but the couple’s decision to cease farming coincided with the English publication of Grazing Ecology and Forest History by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, in which he argues that Europe was not historically a closed-canopy forest but a dynamic landscape shaped by roaming megafauna including oryx and wild boar. It inspired them to recreate the grazing effects of these animals — which in turn encourage plant and insect life — by releasing semi-wild animals. “If you release free-roaming animals into an area, give them enough space and freedom on a big enough scale, you can generate habitat that will be of benefit — rocket fuel, in fact — to biodiversity,” Tree explains.
Although lynx and wolves have been discussed as possible introductions elsewhere in the UK, no predators have been brought into Knepp. The populations of the new introductions are managed artificially; ponies are neutered and pigs, cattle and deer are slaughtered to produce 75 tonnes of meat (at a value of £120,000) a year.
I ask if the experiment has caused the unintended decline of any species. “We don’t think we’ve lost anything,” Burrell replies. “We may have lost biomass of stuff, so there may not be as many bluebells but we haven’t lost them, [they’re] now in the fields, they’re in the scrubland, they’re in the hedges.”
Knepp has always received the CAP Basic Payment, but the rewilding project was given a kick-start with a Countryside Stewardship Scheme grant and more latterly the whole estate has benefited from CAP Higher Level Stewardship funding. So why haven’t more landowners followed their example?
“I think what we’ve both learnt is the level of knowledge actually out there, both in rural and urban populations, is so low. So, when you’re describing loose ideas to people, how it’s going to happen or what the changes will mean, they have no ability to visualise any of it,” Burrell says. “I think we were also surprised by people’s reluctance to consider change when it seemed to us there was this huge opportunity,” Tree adds. “We just assumed that our neighbours would be interested. We had visions initially of a 10,000-acre block that would be naturally bordered by rivers and roads, and that our neighbours would join in.”
Although certain farming practices have been destructive to wildlife, Burrell says many farmers are too distracted by the challenge of making a living to consider alternatives. “When I was farming, all you ever thought about was your margin per hectare, and nature was irrelevant; it was just trying to struggle through, trying to keep the show on the road.” Yet there is no question that Knepp is unusually well-suited to this sort of project. Unlike many farms that are sprawling or fragmented, the estate is a block of land, and its location just 40 miles from central London means there is a strong rental market for converted farm buildings, providing another income stream.
To see the rewilding in action, we jump into a 1960s Austrian troop carrier and roar off across the old park. This was the first section of Knepp to be rewilded (the arable ground was reseeded with grasses before the animals were introduced) and we pass herds of red and fallow deer grazing among ancient oaks.
Burrell continues to the largest and wildest part of the estate, known as the Southern Block, which was simply left to revert after the final harvests. This area is now a patchwork of sallow (hybridised willow) groves, thorny scrub (protecting oak and other saplings), water meadows, ephemeral ponds, woodland and floodplain.
We disembark to inspect a dry patch of earth under a thicket where pigs have nested, and then watch as Longhorns emerge from the undergrowth and amble around a pond. “You’re playing with all these different species of animals and the effects of their nutrient transference,” Burrell explains, “the way they carry seeds within their guts, on their fur, on their body. Seed transference for cattle is 230 different plants, whereas a roe deer is 23 . . . ” He is interrupted by the piercing “peep-peep” of a kingfisher as it darts across the water.
Fourteen years ago, the dense vegetation around us was a wheat field. Today, there is a rich carpet of grasses under our feet and speckled wood butterflies drift between the sallow leaves that provide the perfect habit for purple emperor butterflies. “We had no idea we would become the greatest site for purple emperor butterflies in the country,” Burrell says. “The record last year was 143, and that was the biggest [number] anyone has ever recorded in a day in Britain. This year it was 388.”
The regeneration that started with the soil has worked upwards: as well as 19 species of earthworm, Knepp now attracts all five species of UK owls, 13 out of 18 species of UK bats and growing (and breeding) populations of migratory nightingales and turtle doves. These are uplifting figures but, according to Burrell and Tree, it is the speed of transformation that offers real hope for the future of the British countryside.
“I’m not saying this is going to be a solution to a lot of situations but it’s an option that has bubbled to the surface,” Burrell says. “It now holds a position of strength and interest, because you can have a very positive story after 10, 20 years, for nature — and that was believed to be impossible.”
‘Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm’ by Isabella Tree, Picador, £20
Laura Battle is deputy editor of House & Home
Rewilding revives a country estate | Financial Times