News: Un­bri­dled na­ture

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - Re­port by James Fair

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.

Graz­ing ecol­ogy

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.”

Habi­tat cre­ation

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.”

Repli­cat­ing Knepp

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.”


Knepp Wild­land:; 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.

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