An es­tate’s large-scale ex­per­i­ment in rewil­d­ing and nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion is prov­ing fruit­ful

Bird Watching (UK) - - Parting Shot -

A large-scale rewil­d­ing ex­per­i­ment is reap­ing wildlife re­wards at Knepp Cas­tle Es­tate SPECIES FACTFILE

NIGHTIN­GALE Sci­en­tific name: Lus­cinia megrarhyn­chos 15-16.5cm 23-26cm 6,700 males Least Con­cern Dense un­der­growth and scrub amid open wood­land Diet: In­sects Other top sites: Pax­ton Pits, Cam­bridgeshire; Fin­gringhoe Wick, Es­sex; Lodge Hill, Kent WORDS : MATT MER­RITT

T’S BEEN SAID be­fore, but per­haps what makes the Nightin­gale’s song so mem­o­rable is not the notes them­selves, but the si­lences be­tween them. The fre­quent pauses punc­tu­at­ing the rich, liq­uid pip­ing can crackle with an as­ton­ish­ing ten­sion. That thought oc­curs to me as I look out across the Sus­sex coun­try­side on a chilly evening at the end of April. Our small group hold their col­lec­tive breath in an­tic­i­pa­tion of that most cel­e­brated of bird­songs, and there’s a brief burst, then noth­ing. Check­ing un­der some nearby refu­gia, and find­ing lots of Grass Snakes and Slow-worms, is a tem­po­rary con­so­la­tion.

We’re at Knepp Cas­tle Es­tate, where the on­go­ing Wild­land Pro­ject has cre­ated habi­tat ideally suited to the su­perla­tive song­sters – dense un­der­growth and thick­ets among open wood­land. This rewil­d­ing pro­ject uses large her­bi­vores to drive habi­tat change, with each species af­fect­ing the veg­e­ta­tion in a dif­fer­ent way, cre­at­ing a mo­saic of habi­tats in­clud­ing open grass­land, re­gen­er­at­ing scrub, bare ground and forested groves. Longhorn cat­tle, Tam­worth pigs, Ex­moor ponies and deer all roam, liv­ing out­side year-round with­out feed­ing. This is a large-scale ex­per­i­ment in rewil­d­ing and nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion. The es­tate still pro­duces food – the graz­ing an­i­mals are a source of pre­mium, or­ganic meat – but with­out the sort of in­ten­sive prac­tices that char­ac­terise much mod­ern farm­ing. Its size, about 3,500 acres, pro­vides con­nec­tiv­ity of habi­tats. Put sim­ply, it means that bio­di­ver­sity isn’t just con­cen­trated in hotspots – in­stead, there’s an en­tire liv­ing land­scape. It’s been im­pres­sively suc­cess­ful. Af­ter owner Char­lie Bur­rell de­cided to make the change, the first step, in 2001, was to stop us­ing fer­tilis­ers or chem­i­cals, and to cease plough­ing and in­ten­sive graz­ing. This stim­u­lated the re­vival of many species of grass and wild­flow­ers, and other ar­eas were re­seeded with a grass and wild­flower mix. The grass­land now has a huge amount of in­sect life, all of which pro­vides food for birds – while I was there, hirundines and es­pe­cially House Mar­tins were no­tice­ably plen­ti­ful, while Green Wood­peck­ers yaf­fled away in the back­ground. Tur­tle Doves are found here later in spring, and Grey Par­tridges are present. And it’s not just birds. The Com­mon Blue but­ter­fly has re­turned, and there have been suc­cesses with species such as Es­sex Skip­per and Pur­ple Em­peror. Voles and field mice are do­ing well, with the knock-on ef­fect that owls and rap­tors are thriv­ing – the hoot­ing of

Tawny Owls was the sound­track to our night-time sa­fari, and Barn Owls are nu­mer­ous, too. As well as the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits, there are sub­tler side- ef­fects. Car­bon cap­ture, to slow global warm­ing, for one, and the restora­tion of the River Adur to its nat­u­ral me­an­der, with ponds and wa­ter mead­ows, which helps re­duce flood­ing in towns and vil­lages down­stream. This lat­ter man­age­ment has al­ready brought Snipe back to the es­tate. By far the best way to see it all is as we did, on a Wildlife Sa­fari. From an open-sided ve­hi­cle, you travel into the heart of the es­tate – op­tions in­clude ev­ery­thing from dawn cho­rus sa­faris to oth­ers later in the year tar­get­ing the deer rut. But in April, we’re there for one rea­son. Rested and re­vict­ualled, we head into the night, and are re­warded with the song we wanted to hear, glo­ri­ous in its vol­ume, pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity, and in­ven­tion. Male Nightin­gales are singing in the hope of catch­ing the at­ten­tion of a mi­grat­ing fe­male as she flies over, so you can ap­pre­ci­ate why they have to put on quite such a per­for­mance. With up to 2% of the UK’S Nightin­gale pop­u­la­tion here, in­com­ing fe­males have no ex­cuse for miss­ing the moon­light ser­e­nades. For us, though, the singing is all the bet­ter for the wait we’ve en­dured since the ‘tun­ing up’. It’s that pause be­tween notes, again – this time, the dark­ness and si­lence of this ex­tra­or­di­nary patch of coun­try­side pro­vide a per­fect set­ting for one of na­ture’s most un­miss­able sounds.

KNEPP WILD SA­FARIS Nightin­gale Sa­faris cost £ 25 per per­son, while other op­tions in­clude a half-day sa­fari, at £35pp. You can stay at Knepp, with op­tions in­clud­ing Shep­herd’s Huts, Bell Tents, Yurts, Tipis, and camp­ing. Full de­tails are at knepp­sa­faris.co.uk/prices

SUC­CESS STORY Length: Wing­span: UK Num­bers: IUCN Sta­tus:

Habi­tat:

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