The Knepp Estate has become renowned for its rewilding project, now some twenty years old. Sir Charles and Lady Burrell are true pioneers and have created an alternative land use that is an inspiration to others. Isabella Tree, Lady Burrell, wrote a book simply called ‘Wilding’ which has been widely read and admired since its publication in 2018 and which I have, rather belatedly, just read.
Isabella Tree is an author and travel writer, which is apparent from this book which is beautifully written. She is also a polymath with extensive knowledge on a wide range of subjects, particularly nature and its conservation. She charts the history of the estate over the past twenty years as the project has developed.
The Knepp Estate is around 3,500 acres on the Lower Weald in West Sussex. Its heavy clay soils along the River Adur are not well suited to agriculture, arable farming in particular. When Charlie inherited the estate from his grandparents in 1987, the farm was losing money. Over the next twelve years, he intensified the dairy and arable enterprises, diversifying into ice-cream, yogurt and sheep’s milk and yet failed to make it profitable.
They could not continue so the farming business was wound up, the dairy herds and farm machinery sold in 2000 and the arable land taken on by a contractor. In some ways the timing was fortuitous as the value of the milk quota was high but collapsed the following year. Restoration of the parkland around the castle, originally designed by Humphrey Repton, was the first priority and they were fortunate again with the timing, being awarded a grant from Countryside Stewardship. The following year, fallow deer from Petworth were introduced into the restored park and the project was underway.
One of the main principles is that, contrary to the accepted view, the English landscape was never a closed canopy forest, the Wild Wood, but wood pasture grazed by large herbivores, the tarpan (wild horse), auroch (wild cattle), wild boar, elk, beaver, roe deer, even bison. They stopped vegetative progression and created a landscape of trees, scrub and pasture that supported a huge range of wildlife species.
The aim was to recreate that at Knepp. The estate was divided into three blocks, Northern, Middle and Southern, each ring fenced to retain animals but with all internal fences removed. In 2003, twenty Old English longhorn cattle and six Exmoor ponies were introduced into the Repton park with, a year later, another twenty three cattle in the northern block and two Tamworth sows in the middle block. It was not until 2009 that funding was received to allow a nine mile perimeter to be erected around the southern block.
Throughout the project, the Burrells have had to work with the bureaucracy of the government machine. Tamworth pigs were introduced as it was not thought possible to bring in wild boar but they are still hoping to be allowed to release beavers. More fallow and red deer have been brought in to complement the indigenous roe but bison and elk are thought a step too far. A major water restoration project was undertaken from 2011 with drains blocked and the River Adur, which had been severely canalised over centuries, returned to its natural meanders.
The outcome of all this allowing nature to take its course has been astounding. The return of huge numbers of species of mammals, birds, plants, insects and invertebrates has been immense in its scope, scale and, more particularly, the speed of re-colonisation. The full details are in the book but, to give an indication, there are now 34 species of butterfly, 19 of earthworms, 62 of bees and 30 of wasps. Many endangered bird species are found here including turtle doves, nightingales, all five species of owl, even a red-backed shrike.
Of course, this has been greeted with delight by some, deep suspicion by many. Allowing the proliferation of ‘injurious weeds’, such as ragwort, alarmed neighbouring farmers and horse owners. But the minimum of intervention allowed nature to take its course. In 2007, creeping thistles expanded rapidly and, by 2009, covered much of the Repton park. But then many thousands of painted lady butterflies arrived from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and laid their eggs on the thistles. Spiky black caterpillars emerged, chomping on the leaves and the following year there were no creeping thistles in the park.
The question of the degree of intervention is a crucial one. There was a huge outcry in the Netherlands in the winter of 2017/18 when thousands of red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle starved or were shot on the point of death in the Oostvaarderplassen reserve where non-intervention was the key. At Knepp, anxious to avoid such antagonism, some intervention is undertaken to protect animal welfare as numbers of deer, ponies and cattle are monitored and any excess culled if the balance is thought unstable. Large carcasses are not left for the predators as they would be in a totally wild system.
There is no doubt that the project has been a resounding success. The estate is profitable, not least because of the large number of people that come to see the wildlife, many species of which are extremely rare elsewhere. There is a campsite and farm shop where meat from the animals is sold. In 2017, 2,500 stayed at the campsite and 1,300 were escorted on wildlife safaris. The old farm buildings have been converted to other uses bringing in a useful income. This is a hugely inspirational book that shows just what can be achieved on poor soil ill-suited to modern farming.