“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
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.
TIME FOR CHANGE
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…”
LEAVING A LEGACY
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.”
WILD AND GOOD
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