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