home counties wildland
 ECOS 27 (3/4) 2006

the new nature at Knepp 

The 3500 acre Knepp Estate is a mix of ancient parkland, woodland, arable and pasture. Five years ago its owner, Charlie Burrell, decided on a wildland project for the estate ‘where natural processes predominate and long term financial stability is achieved outside of a conventional agricultural framework’. The project is providing a baseline ecological and economic study for potential rewilding in the English lowlands. 

By PETER TAYLOR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exmoor ponies and Longhorn cattle roam the parkland at Knepp Estate.

I knew it was possible, even sensible, but I had never actually seen it happening – fields upon fields of once arable land becoming wild again. Each field was different – some had been intensive rye grass for dairy production, others for winter wheat, and the pasture was wilding up slowly, with bird-sown sloe and dogrose, and sprouting jay-stashed acorns. The hedges were rank and brimming with berries. Where arable fields had simply been left, there was a mass of thistle heads, willowherb and fleabane, but some fields had been tilled and resown with wildflower mixes, then cut and the hay removed to drain the over-nutrients. It was October so I had to imagine what the spring would be like.  

Nature in abundance For Charlie Burrell the most significant thing about spring at Knepp is the sound. In all his years as a farmer he had not known what was missing. In spring the once silent fields  are now buzzing and humming with a myriad insects and the cascade of bird songs. For me, in this balmy autumn, it was the feel of the place that was extra-ordinary.  

We approached a part of the estate known as the lags – an old channelled stream system where the rewilding had blocked up drains and instigated little tree-dams to bring back the meanders. What were formerly neatly grazed bare meadows were now a mass of sallow and wet pools, home for snipe and very soon, it is hoped, some beaver. The sallows had already invaded half the adjacent field.  

Suddenly, Charlie’s acute hearing picked up a grunt and out of the scrub trundled seven massive red-brown pigs – right up to our legs, nuzzling recognition and prodding for nothing more than affection. These were a free-living group of Tamworths – adapted to forage and requiring zero maintenance. They can turn over half-an-acre of pasture in one night snuffling for roots and grubs. They will even eat carrion. The disturbed ground gets colonised very quickly – one patch was now a mass of dock. 

Charlie’s one sadness is that local farmers look with horror at what they perceive as a ‘mess’ of invaded fields and rank hedges. But it is early days. This is a rewilding, for sure, but it also contains compromises that may be of more relevance to some farmers than they might at first realise. The Tamworths will provide high-quality organic pork for market. There are now some 60 head of old English Longhorn cattle, also requiring minimal maintenance and no supplementary feed, and the organic free-range beef will be sold at a premium to local markets. Thus far, about 1400 acres of former farmland are rewilding around a core of ancient parkland, currently being restored under a Countryside Stewardship scheme. The restoration is focussed upon its former role as a deer park, and fallow deer have been re-introduced with the intention to extend wild grazing to the whole estate, which will be ring-fenced, and diversify the mix of herbivores. 

A small group of Exmoor ponies has been introduced and we visited Knepp’s first foal – its mother keeping it a good distance from our intrusion, and the herd with one stallion will soon build up. Roe deer are plentiful on the estate. 

The gameplan for going wild  Most internal fences in the park have now been removed – but the currently impassable A272 cuts across the northern half, which is grazed by a second group of longhorns. Having moved on from the deer-park ideal, the objective is now to allow this land to scrub up before the grazing is increased. Ultimately, if the A272 can be crossed by an eco-bridge or tunnel, and minor roads crossed with cattle grids, the whole 3500 acres, including a few hundred from a collaborating neighbour, could become southern England’s first functional ‘wildland’ site. There is the potential to link to the Sussex Wildwoods project to the west and to create wild river corridors with other collaborating landowners. 

At present the project is open-ended. Charlie would like to see a full-spectrum of wildland emerge – the Longhorns would be replaced with truly wild “Aurochoxon” (Heck cattle), beaver would be introduced, perhaps the European wood bison, and red deer. Wild boar are likely to colonise – they are now only a few miles distant. Lynx would be the only effective predator – but this animal would require a much larger range – in the richest habitat about 20 km2 . Even if Knepp were extended to twice its size it would provide only one such territory and thus would have to be part of an ecological network. However, there are rumours of lynx being released by activists – of what kind of activist, or lynx, no one seems to know, and there are regular sightings further west in the Mendips and the Dorset heaths.

Charlie is well-advised on the techniques and dynamics of rewilding – his oversight group includes Hans Kampf and Joep Van Da Vlasakker, with advice from Franz Vera, the pioneers of the Oostvaardersplassen in Holland and the Large Herbivore Foundation that now supplies a steady stream of projects throughout Europe with wild cattle, horses and bison. Knepp’s advisers also includes experts from English Nature and the National Trust who are studying the project with great interest, and consultants are examining the economic implications of the venture and the various markets it is creating. 

The crucial question is… how relevant is this to other wildland projects? Is it a model that interested farmers could follow? To my mind, there are two key issues: what are the economic implications, and is there potential for a network of such sites? There are other issues regarding long-term sustainability and ecological objectives, but these are perhaps less pressing and can be answered only by observation as the project unfolds. 

The viability of a wild estate The economic aspects are the subject of detailed study by Natural England. At present the CSS deer-park restoration is central and there is an annual grant for the land it covers, with some relaxation of the original criteria to cover the new objectives of rewilding. The rest of the project is covered by the Single Farm Payment scheme which can be applied because the project is still ‘farming’ in the sense of production of pork and beef. These two sources of finance will be supplemented by expansion of the Longhorn herd and the Tamworth pigs, with some small income from wild venison. Overheads are very low – but all the animals with the exception of the deer, are subject to daily inspections and normal veterinary regulations. Animal welfare and regulatory issues concern whether or not to intervene at difficult calvings, supplementary feed in hard winters, castration of bull calves (to mitigate fighting), weaning and removing calves before the next year’s calving (lowering the risk of the calves being abandoned) and the introduction of Heck cattle’s wilder and more feisty genes with consequent risks to stockmen, visitors and the quality of meat for market. 

I could have pored over the economics – there is a mass of data and a thoroughly worked business plan  available for scrutiny, but this kind of study is of limited relevance. The crucial questions relate not to current incomes or projected incomes under current schemes, but what will happen to agri-environmental grants in the not-so-long term of 10 or 20 years. Most landowners have long-term security in mind for their families and heirs, and rewilding is reversible but at a cost. There is, of course, no clear indication that the EU schemes will continue at current levels of support – and a clear indication that they will not, given the twin pressures of GATT (global agreements on trade) to liberalise markets and the expense of new EU membership in eastern Europe. What is required to secure wildland projects and ecological networks is a new long-term assured grant structure specifically designed for two levels of wilding – the non-productive core which would operate as a sanctuary, and productive buffer zones that could use semi-domestic stock, shooting and other appropriate enterprises to support its economy. My own preference is for core areas not to be shot over for sport, but culling would almost certainly be necessary. 

The changing farm infrastructure Charlie Burrell and his family are cushioned to some degree from these uncertainties – the estate’s core business is now property management and the 20 staff are secured by employment in this business. However, there are some useful lessons for other estates: the dairy and arable farms were closed down meaning reduced employment overheads and a net loss of jobs, and farm buildings were suddenly redundant. It came as a shock to be shown a farm building now let as three separate light industrial storage spaces with an income of £18,000 per annum equivalent to the average net profit of the 300 acre farm unit! This story is apparently repeatable all over southern Britain – and indeed, my own Somerset Gazette carries a farming piece this week on that theme – farms can earn more by letting their outbuildings than they can from farming the land. The Knepp estate has a flourishing business in light storage, craft workshops and other small operations running from its old farm buildings. There are important planning implications here of course, although national guidance is for local planning authorities to show as much flexibility as possible in the new use of farm buildings. 

Most farmers would be reluctant to give up ‘farming’ and become property managers – there is a social and psychological component here that is not to be under-estimated. They have been schooled by a production ethic. They are ‘progress’ minded and do not like to ‘step back in time’. As many ecologists advising farmers will testify, money does not necessarily buy cooperation in biodiversity objectives. 

True wildland will entail no domestic stock, so grants schemes need to be evolved that do not require conventional ‘production’. The dilemma is that farmers may not come on board unless they can still ‘farm’. In this respect, Knepp offers a useful test-bed in this early part of the rewilding journey. There is a market for organic beef and pork, as well as wild-shot boar and deer. In the Forest of Dean, as we learned on a recent Wildland-Network outing with the Forestry Commission, surrounding farmers have been making a surreptitious  £300 per night letting to shoot the frequent wanderers of a small forest herd of wild boar that has been there since 1989.  

Strategic thinking on wildland Whether such a mixed enterprise would be viable without some kind of public-funded support scheme will emerged from the detailed study on Knepp commissioned by Natural England. This mix of woodland and pastoral production does not, however, have to be an effective economic model for larger-scale agricultural change in order to be of great relevance. The future for nature lies with corridors and buffer zones linking core areas – the ecological networks pioneered by the Dutch. On a longer timescale of a few thousand years everything we do for biodiversity in England will be trammelled by a wall of ice. In terms of European temperate zone species survival what happens between Latvia and Romania is crucial – without an effective corridor for migration, northwest Europe’s mammal fauna (at least) is doomed. If Western Europe can influence what happens in southeastern Europe, we will have done far more than anything our own national species targets can achieve. Scarce public funds could be targeted to special areas – rather than dispersed, perhaps ultimately ineffectively, over a generalised agricultural support scheme. 

The future for agriculture is now bound up not only with EU subsidy schemes, but also a developing markets for biofuels. Reduction of subsidy at one time was thought to mean more marginal land for rewilding, as happened in New Zealand – but the opposite can happen where production is intensified for biofuels, as well as generally to compete with global low-cost production of basic foodstuff.  The future for the natural world would be grim – isolated natures reserves amidst ever-intensified farming, unless there was a programme of enlarged core-areas and corridors. 

In such a programme there would be a spectrum of wildland – buffer zones and wildlife-friendly corridors can be a mix of organic farming, productive forestry, and appropriate small business enterprises. Knepp also runs a Polo Club, clay pigeon and pheasant shoot. Pony trekking and wildlife-watching, mini-conference centres and school visits can all play a role in such conversions.

Animal welfare and public perceptions Charlie Burrell is not motivated toward the ‘safari-park’ end of the business model. If it were economic, he would be happier to see the full spectrum of wildland with no domestic or semi-domestic stock and a low level of visitor disturbance – in other words, to act as a core-area where natural processes held sway. He is not averse to wild-shot game meat – whether pheasant, boar, cattle or deer (horses, even wild ones, are never included, of course!). And in any case, populations would require culling not just for the sake of the woodland flora and regeneration, but also for animal health reasons. 

The latter is a major issue for wildland practitioners. If domestic stock are used as analogues for natural grazers – as with the Longhorn and Tamworths (and also with regard to Exmoor ponies, which though truly wild animals, are not perceived by the public as such) then farming and animal welfare regulations apply. This means daily veterinary oversight and intervention during poor winters. Carcasses have to be removed, disease controlled, and injuries ameliorated. Starving animals would engage public interest as well as regulatory concern. Animals would have to be removed to an abattoir for killing.  

These rules do not apply to ‘wild’ animals such as deer – even though these species are just as sensitive to pain and starvation. Deer and wild boar can be shot on the land and the meat marketed locally. Such regulations would not likely be extendable to wild horses, and maybe with some difficulty to wild cattle or bison – at least not in relatively small areas in southern England. The Dutch projects have had trouble with public reaction to carcasses lying around as the populations adjust via natural death to winters or competitions for mates. 

At a few sites we visited points where the wildland of the estate abutted private dwellings. Charlie had the rough edges removed in a buffer strip of mown grass sufficient not to disturb sensitivities – mostly with regard to blown thistle down! Clearly, public education on wildness may be a long process – but one that could bring dividends. The estate welcomes school parties and is currently engaged in efforts to assuage local parish council concerns – which are mostly about tidiness of the countryside. 

An ecological network in lowland Britain? What then is the potential, whether by core areas at Knepp or corridors and buffer zones, for an ecological network in southern England – and elsewhere in the lowlands? The land at Knepp is part of the Sussex Low Weald natural area – heavy bolder clay, with much woodland and ancient iron workings. There is some interest from neighbouring estates and a 10,000 acre connected block is not out of the question in the long term. Linkage to the nearby Sussex Wildwood Project is four miles distance, but Tony Whitbread, chief executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, and a long-term advocate of wild grazing, is on the advisory group and may be up for the challenge. There are potential river restoration schemes within the Knepp estate and also extending outward. Pulborough Brooks, the RSPB reserve is a few miles to the west on the river Rother. Links could perhaps be made to the extensive woodland of the Weald and the South Downs.  

The lessons of Knepp could be applied to other potential large land-holdings as core areas, and also to buffer zones along rewilding river corridors. Truly wild woodland zones with natural grazers would likely be a mosaic of canopy trees, glades, scrub and riparian pasture – home perhaps for a lynx or two (and doubtless of benefit to our naturalised puma and melanistic leopard). Buffer zones on marginal former agricultural land that were partly productive with organic beef and pork would be resilient to predators such as lynx, as well as providing undoubted additional biodiversity benefits.  

A mosaic of surprises As I was leaving Knepp, I spied a pair of stonechat. They were not on the baseline-survey list of 2005, and not a species I would expect of pasture and parkland – they like it a bit rougher! This land would doubtless bring back many bird species and prosper others on the Estate that are struggling such as turtle dove, skylark, marsh tit, yellowhammer and reed bunting (it is thought the decline in woodland and farmland birds is a combination of intensive practices such as winter sowing and a general decline in insect numbers). Four pairs of buzzard have colonised – and we saw one fly up from a rabbit kill. Red kite are recorded and there are lapwing, stock dove, barn owl, green woodpecker and nightingale all likely to increase as the meadows and woods develop. Currently water shrew is the most notable wild mammal – but otter may come, and European wildcat could be introduced. Knepp offers current refuge for several nationally scarce Lepidoptera – including silver-washed fritillary, some scarce beetles and bees, great crested newt, and the great yellow cress as the only unusual plant. 

But biodiversity targets are not the only benefit, or even the main relevant criteria for success. Knepp offers a glimpse not only of the potential for cores and corridors, and to act as a test-bed for wildland and buffer-zone economics – it offers an experience of what nature can be like and of what it may feel like to lessen control and slow down enough to listen – not just to the sound of birds and insects, but also to the human heart that somehow got lost along the ways of a busy world. In all these respects, Charlie Burrell is a pioneer and I came away vastly encouraged not just by the sights and sounds of a rewilding land, but also by the professionalism of the project, the focus of expertise and open minds, and, to their great credit, government agencies willing to support an open-ended project such as this, and learn alongside it. 

  

References and notes 

Greenaway T.E. (2006) Knepp Castle Estate baseline ecological survey. English Nature Research Reports No 693. 

Hootsmans M. & Kampf H. (2004) Ecological Networks: experiences in the Netherlands (from h.kampf@minlav.nl

Hodder K.H. et al (2005) Large herbivores in the wildwood and modern naturalistic grazing systems. English Nature Research Reports No 648 

Kirby K.J. (2003) What might a British forest-landscape driven by large herbivores look like? English Nature Research Reports No 530. 

Vera F.W.M. (2000) Grazing ecology and forest history. CABI Publishing. 

Peter Taylor directs Ethos. ethos@onetel.com