News: Unbridled nature
How a pioneering ‘rewilding’ model is transforming a Sussex estate
On a short walk around Knepp, the estate’s ecologist Penny Green stops to point out three different oak trees. One is a tiny sapling, no more than a foot or so high that is doomed to be browsed to oblivion in the next year or so.
Nearby is a 400-year-old gnarled and stately veteran, home to a little owl, that lives in a burrow at its base, and a rare bracket fungus. A fine specimen, but one that tells us little about the Knepp experiment because it was already mature centuries before anyone felt the necessity to consider coining a term such as ‘rewilding’.
It’s the one of medium stature, perhaps a decade or two old, that is of most significance, because around its base, growing up to a height of some 3m, is a thick skirt of impenetrable brambles that have protected it so far. “It will eventually overshadow the brambles and shade them out,” Green says. “This is how we think oak trees grew in a British wood pasture system.”
This oak, in other words, is a demonstration so tangible you could hug it of how regeneration can occur without reference to introduced predators – a gentle rebuke to the “Wolves Now!” school of rewilding thought, so prevalent in recent years.
Knepp is the brainchild of Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree, a writer who has just brought out a book about the project, Wilding. Charlie began managing the 1,400ha estate in 1985, but gradually realised that farming it in a conventional, intensive way would have been perpetually loss-making because of the poor quality of the soil. “We couldn’t even contract it out because nobody wanted it,” he says.
The solution they arrived at was to put it out to nature instead. Burrell was inspired by the pioneering rewilding work of Frans Vera at Oostvardersplassen in the Netherlands, where 5,500ha of wetland and reclaimed polder was left to run wild with the introduction of red deer, konik ponies and Heck cattle, the latter two being artificially bred likenesses of the European wild horse, or tarpan, and wild bovid, the auroch.
Burrell started to leave fields fallow in 2000, then added his own herbivore ‘proxies’ into the mix – longhorn cattle for aurochs, Tamworth pigs for wild boar and Exmoor ponies instead of tarpan. Then he left them
“I was inspired by the pioneering rewilding work of ecologist Frans Vera at Oostvardersplassen.” Charlie Burrell
to get on with it. “It’s a long-term, minimumintervention, natural process-led initiative,” he says. Some farming activity takes place (longhorns are ‘culled’ for their beef), but the only intervention that is done purely for wildlife is putting up barn-owl boxes. As the figures show, the biggest money earner now is renting out buildings that previously cost large sums to maintain and contributed to the loss-making agricultural business. Farming and environmental subsidies – though these are likely to diminish post Brexit – camping and safaris are also important income streams. Like Oostvardersplassen Oostvardersplassen, Knepp proves that not only are wolves and lynx
not necessary to rewild an area, but that herbivores are. The longhorns can carry up to 230 different seed species in their gut, acting as dispersers. The Tamworth pigs create disturbed ground in which vetches, trefoils and scarlet pimpernel can all get a hold and grow. Turtle doves, in turn, feed on these plants’ tiny seeds. “How they find enough to eat, I don’t know,” says Green, “but they clearly do.”
Today, Knepp looks like nowhere else in Britain. The borders of the roughly 4ha fields still exist in the shape of voluminous hedgerows that are as distinct from those found in most of our countryside as a wildcat is from a domestic tabby – bigger, bulkier and tangibly wilder. Sallow and bramble scrub is dotted across the fields, lending them the aura of an East African savannah. There’s the ghost of the former wheat fields somewhere. Classic mosaic habitat, you might think, but Penny Green says, “We’re calling it kaleidoscopic because it’s constantly changing.”
In mid-May, the calls of multiple cuckoos provide an incessant background noise, and we also catch the rare murmur and sight of a turtle dove, of which there were 16 singing males counted in 2017, making Knepp the only place in the UK where numbers are increasing. Down by the Hammer Pond, a nightingale pumps out its synth-song music. “We counted 88 harvest mice nests here last year,” says Green.
Scrub provides nesting habitat for whitethroats and dunnocks, while the sallow is also the larval food plant for one of Britain’s most sought-after butterflies, the purple emperor. Safaris focusing on just this species take place over two weeks in June and July.
But none of this was planned or intended. Knepp has no targets for luring rare migrants to its Elysian fields, and Burrell is wary of focusing purely on these successes. “You don’t want to say Knepp is the place to hear nightingales, because they might then disappear because of what’s happening in Africa or the rest of England.”
Indeed, one of Burrell and Tree’s fears is that Knepp could gain official designation for, say, its turtle doves, forcing them to manage the estate for them. “Slapping specific conservation targets on Knepp would straitjacket the dynamism that has brought us such exciting and unexpected results so far
“Knepp throws up questions about the way we protect nature in this country.”
and compromise the opportunities for other species yet to emerge,” Tree writes in Wilding.
The importance of Knepp is that it throws up questions about how we protect nature in the rest of the country. Wildlife conservation is largely based upon expensive, intensive management of reserves, in which habitat is moulded to encourage particular species. Knepp’s challenge to this is why bother if you can do nothing and achieve great results.
Burrell recognises they are doing it on a scale – 1,400ha – that our nature bodies can only dream about. An average wildlife trust might have 60 reserves but most of them will cover fewer than 20ha, with the largest perhaps 200ha. Even an RSPB reserve such as Minsmere, at 1,000ha, is smaller than Knepp.
Christopher Williams, conservation director for Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, visited Knepp the same day as BBC Wildlife and would like to see other landowners take a similar approach, but says it has limited lessons for his Trust. “Take our hay meadows,” he says. “If you don’t manage them in a particular way, they will become dominated by coarse grasses, the invertebrates will disappear and you’ll lose your nesting curlews. With woodlands, you create rides and glades to replicate the natural process of having cattle and boar crashing through which allows ground flora and woodland butterflies to flourish.”
Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, says wildlife groups are trying to achieve Knepp-type scales where they can. “On the Suffolk coast we are working across landowning groups to create dynamic wetlands because that’s what species such avocets like,” he says. “Scale and heterogeneity [diversity] is what conservation is all about, and if you haven’t got scale you have to manage really hard to achieve heterogeneity.”
Where does Knepp take us from here, then? Burrell would like to see the Government encourage landowners with financial incentives to create similar initiatives that “crash onto the boundaries” of nature reserves, allowing their fauna and flora to spill out into the wider countryside. He suggests ‘pop-up’ Knepps, whereby farmers are allowed to let the land go wild for 25 years and then return to farming if they want to. Could we protect nature by making it less sacrosanct?
There are other issues to consider. Of course, we still need land to grow crops and graze livestock and, as Burrell puts it, “Every time you say, ‘Let’s give more space to nature’, you’re just exporting the problem elsewhere.” But then he adds: “We do need space, and not just for our heads. If we don’t have it, we’re all doomed anyway.”
FIND OUT MORE
Knepp Wildland: https://knepp.co.uk; read our review of Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree on p110.
Charlie admires a purple emperor. Sallow scrub has provided these butterflies with an important habitat.
Knepp Estate ( bottom left) is the largest rewilding project of its kind in lowland Britain. It has increased biodiversity in a short space of time. All five British owls, including little owls ( below), can be found here.
Grazing fallow deer ( above) and Exmoor ponies ( right) at Knepp disturb the environment, transfer nutrients and disperse seeds over a wide area, enabling fauna and flora to thrive.
Above: tourists look out for butterflies during a guided walk. The estate’s purple emperors are a sought-after species.