“If you al­low na­ture to truly do its thing by just let­ting it hap­pen, then you can take the sci­en­tific world by sur­prise and, more im­por­tantly, give peo­ple hope”

By rewil­d­ing their land, Is­abella Tree and Char­lie Bur­rell have learned some of na­ture’s secrets, lit­er­ally in their back­yard. But it is shar­ing that knowl­edge, they tell Lisa Sykes, that brings the real re­ward

The Simple Things - - LIVING | EATING WELL - To stay, or book a sa­fari, visit knepp­sa­faris.co.uk. Turn the page for your chance to win a bal­loon flight over Knepp.

There are deer tracks out­side the front door of Knepp Cas­tle in West Sus­sex. It’s not a real, an­cient cas­tle but was built, ram­parts and all, by Re­gency ar­chi­tect John Nash for the Bur­rell fam­ily in 1809. How­ever, there’s noth­ing fake about the deer. Herds of red and fal­low deer roam the 3500-acre Knepp Es­tate, right up to the house.

And that’s not all. Among the thorny scrub, in grown-out hedgerows, across wood­land pas­tures and along the lush river banks are other large her­bi­vores; Longhorn cat­tle, pretty Ex­moor ponies and ex­pres­sive Tam­worth pigs. To­gether they have helped to re-wild the land, in the process cre­at­ing a mo­saic of habi­tats for other, rarer crea­tures – tur­tle doves, nightin­gales, rep­tiles, bats and but­ter­flies.

The project is rad­i­cal, and not with­out con­tro­versy among farm­ers and landown­ers. Be­hind it are Sir Charles Bur­rell, the 10th baronet and his wife Is­abella. Char­lie and Issy (no one seems to use the ti­tle) have be­come con­ser­va­tion­ists, she knowl­edge­able and se­ri­ous, he cheeky, pas­sion­ate and oc­ca­sion­ally philo­soph­i­cal. Their ac­cu­mu­lated knowhow, since they made the de­ci­sion in 2000 to aban­don con­ven­tional farm­ing at Knepp, is vast.


But first and fore­most, Char­lie is a farmer and, when he in­her­ited Knepp at 25, that’s what he had trained and ex­pected to do. Then the es­tate looked very dif­fer­ent. Loss-mak­ing farm­land with heavy clay soils that couldn’t take mod­ern ma­chin­ery when it was wet. Be­fore the sec­ond world war, less was de­manded of the land, which was mainly pas­ture. Then came ‘dig for vic­tory’ and plough­ing even un­suit­able land for crops hap­pened across Bri­tain. “It was an emer­gency,” says Issy. “But the prob­lem is we’ve car­ried on farm­ing as if it were still an emer­gency and the land here ba­si­cally be­came a bog ev­ery year.” They tried di­ver­si­fy­ing – pro­duc­ing yo­ghurt, ice-cream and sheep’s cheese – but the debt still grew. “Af­ter 17 years, our over­draft was about a mil­lion and a half and noth­ing had worked. It was a wor­ry­ing time. We didn’t re­ally know what to do, but we knew we had to stop farm­ing. In 2000 they sold their dairy herds and their milk quota and just by stop­ping farm­ing, they cleared their debts be­fore they even did any­thing else.

Then two things hap­pened that set the Bur­rells on their pi­o­neer­ing path; they re­ceived a grant to re­store the Rep­tonesque park­land sur­round­ing the cas­tle, de­signed in the 18th cen­tury but ploughed in the war and worked hard with crops ever since. And sud­denly, says Issy, “we were look­ing out on to 350 acres that was kind of breath­ing a sigh of re­lief. We could walk out into knee-high fields of wild­flow­ers and na­tive grasses.

“It was just ex­tra­or­di­nary. We in­tro­duced fal­low deer to graze it and keep the look of a Rep­ton park. Then you’re hear­ing in­sects and see­ing birds fly­ing and you’re look­ing out on to a land­scape where you’ve got wild, or at least semi-wild, an­i­mals just graz­ing like it’s the Serengeti. It feels fan­tas­tic and it had a

huge psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect on us. This was a land­scape that was not be­ing made to do some­thing in­ap­pro­pri­ate. It felt like it was rest­ing and do­ing what it wanted to do. Liv­ing in the mid­dle of that was a rev­e­la­tion.”

It sparked their think­ing: Char­lie’s fa­ther had al­ready sug­gested they ranch Knepp – farm­ing fewer an­i­mals but with no fences. Then Char­lie vis­ited the Oost­vaarder­splassen project in Hol­land, where 14,000 acres of land, re­claimed from the sea 40 years ago and now fen­land, wood­land and wild grass­land, has been set aside for wildlife, pop­u­lated with free-roam­ing Heck cat­tle, Konik horses and wild birds. They found a men­tor in the Dutch ecol­o­gist Frans Vera. “He ar­gued that we’ve for­got­ten about the huge herds of graz­ing an­i­mals that would have been roam­ing this land­scape be­cause they haven’t been here for so long,” says Issy, “but in Frans’s the­ory, Europe would have been much like Africa. We would have had huge herds of au­rochs, tarpan and wild boar as well as beavers, red deer and elk. The idea that it was wall-to-wall for­est here just isn’t true. These an­i­mals can re­store ecosys­tems, in short they can change the world. And con­ve­niently they’re not the ones peo­ple worry about so much.”

The three Bs – beaver, bi­son and boar – are what Issy and Char­lie would love to see roam­ing their land, but it is il­le­gal in Bri­tain to re­lease wild boar (though

in­ter­est­ingly if es­capees find you, that’s fine, and they’ve been sighted only a few miles from Knepp…). The prob­lem with bi­son is dog walk­ers (the bi­son think of them as wolves, their orig­i­nal preda­tor, and get very ag­i­tated), so any­where with pub­lic foot­paths is a no-no. Beavers would have to be in­tro­duced through an of­fi­cial scheme – some­thing the Bur­rells still hope for.


Two of the many wildlife suc­cess sto­ries at Knepp are tur­tle doves and pur­ple em­peror but­ter­flies: both are en­abled by the Tam­worth pigs that root and open up the ground, al­low­ing the shrubs and na­tive plants – which the doves and but­ter­flies need for food and shel­ter – to flour­ish. Tur­tle doves have de­clined by 91% in the UK in the past 10 years. “We counted 16 male tur­tle doves here last sum­mer,” says Char­lie, “that’s more than on 250,000 acres of Na­tional Trust land, and the RSPB want to learn from our tur­tle doves, too.”

Like­wise, har­vest mice nests are plen­ti­ful in the reeds and rushes, which are dense long grasses but not the arable grasses, where they are usu­ally found. “There was no arable land in Bri­tain un­til farm­ing ar­rived 4,500 years ago,” says Char­lie, “but we had tur­tle doves and har­vest mice be­fore then, so they must have lived some­where else.”

They both speak with pride and plea­sure that their project is prov­ing es­tab­lished con­ser­va­tion­ists wrong. Issy likes that they are in­flu­enc­ing sci­ence: “If we’d wanted to con­serve nightin­gales, say, we would prob­a­bly have been ad­vised to plant wood­land and coppice. But what’s hap­pened here is an ex­plo­sion of nightin­gales, which was com­pletely un­ex­pected. And they’re nest­ing in our grow­ing out hedgerows and scrub.” The rea­son it’s a sur­prise, says Issy, “is be­cause we don’t have thorny scrub in our land­scape any more. It’s not use­ful now, whereas only 70–80 years ago, be­fore mass pro­duc­tion, it was val­ued for tim­ber and fuel. It had a mil­lion uses.”

To al­low this trans­for­ma­tion takes only one thing: the abil­ity to do noth­ing. But this is not as easy as it sounds. “As a farmer, you don’t let that hap­pen, and as a gar­dener you don’t. But even as a con­ser­va­tion­ist, you don’t,” says Issy. “You con­trol what grows and what doesn’t.” Char­lie agrees: “What we’re find­ing at Knepp is that if you al­low na­ture to truly do its thing by sit­ting on your hands and just let­ting it hap­pen, then you can take the sci­en­tific world by sur­prise and, more im­por­tantly, give peo­ple hope. What we prove as a demon­stra­tion site is that ecosys­tems can work again and it’s not a life­time away, it’s a decade…”


Char­lie is out walk­ing most days, what he likes most is to go to an area he hasn’t seen in a while and no­tice the small changes and sea­sonal shifts. He still calls the

areas ‘fields’ and knows when each was ‘given up’ and how they have fared since. “Like any farmer, you’ve got to know your site,” he says. “But you’re also train­ing your­self to be ob­ser­vant, so you can tell your story about a new way of think­ing about land­scape.”

Char­lie re­mains a farmer: “We are farm­ing, but it is ex­ten­sive farm­ing, so more like a ranch. We ac­tu­ally only have to pro­duce one an­i­mal that we sell to the pub­lic to be classed as farm­ers. In fact they sell up­wards of 75 tonnes of veni­son, beef and pork each year – all or­ganic, free-roam­ing and pas­ture-fed. “This is us act­ing as the top preda­tor, as we only have space for maybe half a lynx here.”


Hav­ing Africa on your doorstep must have quite an ef­fect, even for a land-own­ing fam­ily. “We used to travel, like a lot of peo­ple, to the ends of the earth to find won­der­ful na­ture and go on sa­fari. We never thought that it could be in our back­yard, and what we were do­ing in that back­yard to stop it be­ing there.”

“It’s been ex­tra­or­di­nary be­ing able to walk out of the door here and see amaz­ing species, but it does mean that when you’re away from it, you miss the sounds and the feel of life here. There is noth­ing out there that com­pares. It’s get­ting so we don’t want to leave home.”

The im­por­tance of Knepp is not just the in­cred­i­ble wildlife, but its psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact as a wild place, that it ex­ists at all. We’re only just start­ing to re­alise as a so­ci­ety, says Issy, how wild places and na­ture help us. “Hos­pi­tals now know that some­body gets bet­ter much quicker if they’ve got a view of na­ture from their bed. We’ve evolved over hun­dreds of thou­sands of years in na­ture, and so our time as an ur­ban species is no more than a tiny lit­tle blip. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary the num­ber of ecol­o­gists who walk through our door who are pas­sion­ate and clever, from Chris Pack­ham to Ge­orge Mon­biot to Ted Green, and a lot of them have had a trou­bled child­hood or a dif­fi­cult mo­ment in their life where they found huge con­so­la­tion in na­ture.”

And it is not just men­tal health that ben­e­fits: “It’s more than hav­ing clean air. We know now that walk­ing through deep na­ture that has a rich bio­di­ver­sity fills our lungs with tiny par­ti­cles, in­clud­ing fungi and pollen, which hugely helps our im­mune sys­tems.”

To this end, Char­lie and Issy en­cour­age vis­i­tors to Knepp – run­ning guided sa­faris but also en­cour­ag­ing campers and glam­pers to stay and ex­pe­ri­ence the wild land for them­selves, in ac­com­mo­da­tion mod­elled on African bush­camps. Vis­i­tors can seek out in­sects, plants and birds as well as Knepp’s self-styled ‘ Big Five’ (red deer, fal­low deer, cat­tle, ponies and pigs). You can even watch it from afar on Kneppflix. They’ve built tree­top hides where peo­ple can watch wildlife with­out dis­turb­ing it and a net­work of pub­lic foot­paths through the es­tate means any­one can walk on them at any time. It’s not un­til you’ve walked through a field of scrub hum­ming with in­sects and bird­song, peered at a hedge­line that reaches for the sky, that you re­alise that you have prob­a­bly never seen land­scape like this in Eng­land’s green and pleas­ant land. Cer­tainly not at all in the crowded South East. It’s ex­otic and yet at the same time feels just right.

Issy’s ob­ser­va­tions of Knepp’s rewil­ded es­tate are help­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists re­think tra­di­tional guide­lines

Red deer roam free, scrub­land sprawls unchecked: a sa­fari at Knepp re­veals West Sus­sex coun­try­side in a truly wild state

Two of Knepp’s ‘Big Five’ (above): Ex­moor ponies and Tam­worth pigs. Issy and Char­lie (left) in front of their Re­gency cas­tle home

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