The 3,500 acre Knepp estate in Sussex, England is the location of an astonishing rewilding project – the biggest in lowland Britain, and the only one to use a whole suite of grazing animals. Once a site of intensive farming, it was given back to nature in 2001 by its brave owners Charles and Issy Burrell and is today a biodiverse sanctuary which all manner of species call home, from the endangered nightingale and turtle dove to the peregrine falcon, red kite and UK’s largest population of purple emperor butterflies.
The Knepp estate has been in the Burrell family for 220 years, and giving up intensive farming had been a difficult but unavoidable decision. ‘The heavy clay soil was desperately poor, we rarely made a profit, and had worked up an eye-watering overdraft,’ explains Issy. The Burrells were inspired by the Oostvaardersplassen, a nature project in the Netherlands where sea eagles, bitterns, spoonbills, bearded tits, goshawks, kestrels, kingfishers and thousands of greylag geese have colonised land that was once under the sea. If biodiversity can come back here, they thought, might it come back to their depleted agricultural land in the busy southeast of England? They sold their dairy herds and farm machinery, stopped using the pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers that had once seemed so essential, and stepped back to allow nature to take its course and establish its own dynamic ecosystem.
Rewilding is controversial, with conservationists and farmers divided over it. Many farmers say it’s folly to replace food production with wilderness, but ecologists say that rewilding’s key principle is to replace conservation “mollycoddling” with “restoring natural processes”, allowing a landscape and its plants and animals to run wild. And indeed the rewilding of Knepp has turned out to be far richer than the Burrells ever dreamed, producing a wealth of information new to science, often subverting what ecologists think they know about the natural world.
To help the process, the Burrells embraced the theory of grazing ecology put forward by Dutch ecologist Dr. Frans Vera – the belief that grazing animals are fundamental to the creation and sustainment of complex, rich habitats. Through trampling or puddling, rootling or debarking of trees – even through seed dispersal, via dunging – the presence of grazing animals is believed to restore soils and shape landscapes to make them inhabitable for a wide range of other fauna, and flora, too. As many of the big, grazing animals that once roamed Britain – such as the wild ox, the original wild horse and the truly wild boar – are now extinct, the Burrells introduced some modern equivalents to Knepp such as the red and fallow deer, Tamworth pigs and old English longhorns. They also brought in Exmoor ponies, an ancient breed that are now an endangered species and (astonishingly) rarer than tigers.
The results were joyous and astonishing, and Issy has written about them in her book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm under her maiden name Isabella Tree. ‘On a good July day, I can count ten species of butterfly from my desk. We have 34 at Knepp altogether, including the rare purple emperor – without moving from my desk’, she enthuses. ‘At night, Knepp hosts an incredible 441 different species of moth, and nightingales – whose numbers fell by 91% between 1967 and 2007 – arrived in such numbers that we began to have nightingale dinners, taking friends out at night to listen to their astonishing arias. Most had never heard one before.’
More and more endangered species turn up every year – such as turtle doves, which are on the brink of extinction, and cuckoos, whose numbers have declined catastrophically. Spotted flycatchers, fieldfares, hobbies, woodlarks, skylarks, lapwings, house sparrows, lesser spotted woodpeckers, yellowhammers, woodcock, red kites, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons, all five types of British owl, the first ravens at Knepp in the past 100 years – the list goes on and on.
To see things for yourselves, you can join a safari on the Knepp estate. Go to hear the nightingales in April and May or to see the purple emperor butterflies in July. Go on bee, bat and moth safaris, or to see deer rutting and learn about wildflowers and ancient trees. There’s also a pretty camping field dotted with cosy shepherd’s huts and yurts and two spectacular tree houses in an adjoining ancient wood – or bring your own tent if you prefer.
The key to Knepp’s extraordinary success? ‘It’s about surrendering all preconceptions, and simply observing what happens,’ says Issy. By contrast, conventional conservation tends to be about targets and control, and often involves micromanaging a habitat for the perceived benefit of several chosen species. ‘If all these natural miracles can happen here, on our depleted patch of land in the overdeveloped, densely populated southeast, they can happen anywhere’.
Find out more at https://kneppsafaris.co.uk.
To read more about why rewilding is controversial, read The Guardian at www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/01/rewilding-conservation-ecology-national-trust.
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