was a passion for collecting insects that
earned Charlie Burrell the nickname Bug from
his school friends, but even so, no one
could have had an inkling back then that his
fascination would see him one day turn his
estate in West Sussex into what is, in
effect a giant jam jar for his beloved
His extraordinary project on the
3,500 acres around his home Knepp Castle,
must surely by the most daring of all
wildlife-and-farming experiments in Britain
of recent years – and perhaps the
he has done already in this flat,
well-wooded corner of the county in the two
years since he began his ‘rewilding’ of
the estate almost defies belief.
He has taken everything that makes a
farm function and chucked it away: gates
between fields have disappeared, as well as
fences; old rhythms of sowing and harvesting
have been abandoned; careful routines of
maintenance, hedge-trimming and spraying
Mother Nature has been left to run
wild instead and goodness; the old girl is
having a ball.
that used to be given a short back and sides
every year have sprouted crazy Afro hairdos
and spilled into pastures that are littered
with raggedy crops of nettles, thistles and
The result looks so prehistoric; you
half expect Richard Attenborough, in his Jurassic
guise, to pop up from the bracken and hiss a
warning about hungry velociraptors nearby.
Instead of dinosaurs, Mr Burrell has
stocked the land with animals almost as
unproductive and ancient: Old English
Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth
pigs and fallow deer that roam at will
through the spreading undergrowth.
would anyone do something so wantonly
destructive to a prime agricultural estate?
The 45-year-old Mr Burrell doesn’t
seem madly eccentric or impetuous.
His blonde hair may be longer and
curlier than Guards’ regulations, and his
manner engagingly relaxed, but he comes
across as down-to-earth and hardly the vegan
shoots game enthusiastically on the estate,
and is a serious polo player with his own
thriving members’ club in the castle
(He looks brawny enough to carry his
pony the length of the pitch should it run
out of puff.)
need to go back a few years to understand
his motives fully.
Bug inherited the estate from his
grandfather at 14, and then took on the
running of it at the still-precocious age of
21, after three years’ study art
Cirencester, and as soon as he got his hands
on it, he revved up the business.
‘Basically, that meant intensifying
everything as much as possible, he recalls,
sitting in his office in the castle, where
historic floor-to-ceiling estate maps fight
for space with framed specimens of giant
beetles and butterflies.
he expanded the 800-acre home farm to
embrace the whole 3,500 acres of the estate,
and rapidly developed new businesses.
Soon he found himself running three
dairies (judged to be among the most
efficient in the country), a nursery with a
staff of 15 producing 120,000 plants a year,
and a milk-bottling plant that also churned
out luxury ice cream and yoghurts.
The whole machinery of the estate was
oiled and humming at a high pitch.
English Longhorn were introduced to the
estate in 2003. Bulls run with the herds all year,
so calving occurs naturally rather than
when he and his wife, Issy (an author) stood
back and looked at the results, they felt
anything but happy.
The castle is surrounded by
magnificent parkland, landscaped by the
great Humphrey Repton for a Burrell ancestor
in the early 19th century, yet
they could hardly tell the park existed, as
the fields of wheat and ryegrass swathed the
land right up to the castle doors.
‘We were noticing that the trees
were suffering too.
Certainly, our outlook and the
pressure of intensive agriculture up to our
doorstep was beginning to be felt’. So as
a first modest step, they took these 500
acres out of production, using a Countryside
Stewardship grant to restore the park and
establish wildflower meadows in place of
that process was finished, in year three, we
walked over that land and we were kicking up
common blue butterflies every other foot.
We’d never seen a common blue in
the park before then.
It was because the birdsfoot trefoil
was there and commonly butterflies use
trefoil as their feeding plant.
Also sitting there looking out of the
window, we were looking at grazing animals
rather than at a wheat crop, or looking at Friesian
heifers eating some ryegrass.
Suddenly, how we lived and how we
actually saw our surroundings were
ages past: Tamworth pigs go foraging among
some of the estate's 3,500 acres
the remarkable results in the park, and
influenced by a visit in 2002 to a
pioneering wildland project in the
Netherlands, Mr Burrell began to dream about
a revolution at Knepp Castle: what would
happen if the land was let go completely,
and traditional grazing animals were allowed
to interact freely with each other and their
‘It’s not really looking back in
time and trying to replicate a lost
The problem is that things such as
mycorrhizal fungi take centuries to come
had 50 years of intensive spraying and that
changes a lot.
Without those sorts of driving forces
under the ground, you won’t return in my
generation to what existed a century ago,’
what he hoped to achieve was to create a
study on a huge scale of how biodiversity
can be fostered and driven with low
densities of pigs, deer and cattle, shifting
myriad wild seeds from place to place as
There is, in fact, now so much
unrestricted space for the animals to wander
that we were lucky to clap eyes on the
magnificent Longhorns at all on a speedy
tour of the estate in Mr Burrell’s
‘Someone came down the other week
to look at the cattle.
We spent four hours driving around
looking for them and couldn't find either
even here in utopia, there are some limits
to what the tolerant Burrells allow their
livestock to get up to.
Some of the Tamworths have developed
a nasty habit of rootaling directly in front
of the castle, which explains the discreet
electric fence on the front lawn.
And the very last thing a polo ground
needs is a herd of clod-hopping ruminants
with an inflated sense of their own
importance to maraud at will, so one
shouldn’t be surprised if another electric
fence or two makes an occasional appearance.
still very early days for the Knepp Castle
project, and Mr Burrell reckons it will need
25 years before the results can be judged,
but reactions so far to his project from
environmentalists, experienced naturalists,
and even the odd pasty-faced Government
official, have ranged across the scale from
delight through to ecstasy.
his own tribe – the landowners – who
have taken far more convincing, as he
discovered when he showed a part from the
CLA around the estate earlier this year.
‘You had the young ones from 20 to
40 who were interested and keen to learn
50 year olds who had gone through the whole
process of food production from the Second
World War onwards, and had actually had to
struggle to make it all work, thought it was
They couldn’t understand it.
“Thistles, nettles, plants that
don’t look like grass?
Where’s the production going to
If everyone does this, no one’s
going to be able to eat.”
The older generation said that they
could remember when much of England looked
They said “Brilliant, you’ve got
the birds and the insects back.”
lake supports diverse wildlife including a
heronry comprising some 15 breeding pairs
subject that hasn’t been broached yet is
Not to put too fine a point on it,
surely this much be bankrupting him?
After all, Mr Burrell has given up
his dairies and the thousands of plants sold
by his nursery, not to mention tons of
intensively produced grain.
A few haunches of venison and a few
sides of Longhorn beef.
we’ve never had such a rosy time’, he
‘With the farming operation in this
marginal land, you’re talking about
producing 2¾ tons per acre of wheat, and
trying to make that pay is damn near
impossible unless you’re back up to the £160-£200
per ton mark.
I suppose the reason it works so well
financially is that we’re in a very high
rent area and we have a landholding with a
lot of property on it.
[There are 84 cottages and houses
plus countless barns on the estate.]
When you give up intensive farming
culture, what do you release?
You release cottages and you release
We haven’t had a downturn in rents
on those yet.’
there’s another more personal benefit that
accountants can’t measure.
‘The difference between our life
running the farm a few years ago to life now
It’s been fantastic.
Now we’re thinking of wonderful
positive things the whole time rather than
struggling with the every day management of
a large multi-faceted operation.’
outlook for this thrillingly bizarre
experiment should by rights be sun-kissed
Mr Burrell is, even now, extending
his experiment to a further 1,500 acres of
land (including part of a farm belonging to
a neighbouring cousin), and stripping out
the small dams that slow the little River
Adur as it crosses the estate so that it can
meander and flood at will in future,
creating even more interest for wildlife.
Castle's policy for culling fallow deer
involves a selection of all age groups, as
would a natural predator
nothing in the farming world can every
completely avoid red tape – not even
Jurassic Park – and farmers earn subsidies
under the EU single-farm payment scheme only
so long as they keep their land in
reasonable shape for agriculture.
Letting it all hang out as Bug has
done is well outside the rules.
So, unless an exception is made for
Knepp castle, he will either have to cut
back – or ‘top’ the 1,500 acres of
shrubs and trees emerging in his fields,
wrecking his experiment, or he’ll have to
forgo the environmental subsidies that make
the project financially viable.
hopes that he’ll be able to persuade Defra
to create an exception, but so far the
department hasn’t responded.
The clock is ticking.
if the Knepp Castle project does
successfully wriggle around the subsidy
rules, what will the land come to look like
in the future?
Mr Burrell rumbles in the Mule to the
western end of the estate to illustrate the
answer, through young plantations of mixed
broadleaves planted to mark the birth of his
two children, Ned and Nancy, until he
reaches an area where he dug out some
scrapes 16 years ago to create a series of
duck-flighting ponds at the same time as
taking the adjacent land out of intensive
here between field hedgerows and wood have
All are one.
Wilderness has returned.
Here and there, the bright yellow
flags of the infamous ragwort are flowering
and, as readers will know, Country
Life has launched a vigorous campaign
against the poisonous weed, encouraging
farmers and landowners to hunt it down and
root it out without mercy.
Mr Burrell, ever the iconoclast, has
yet to be converted.
His case for its defence is that the
plant is adored by butterflies and insects,
and it kills relatively few farm animals
As yet another patch of the yellow
pops into view, he leaps from the Mule and
strides towards it. “I love my ragwort,”