tear down the barricades

In a revolutionary approach to estate management, Charlie Burrell has abandoned modern farming methods and taken down nearly all the fences on his 3,500-acre West Sussex estate, where the deer, cows and even pigs now roam free.  Indulgent fantasist or enlightened nature lover.

SANDY MITCHELL goes to find out:

Exmoor ponies graze at Knepp Castle, watched by a fallow buck

 

It 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 creepy crawlies.  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 wackiest.

What 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 forgotten.  Mother Nature has been left to run wild instead and goodness; the old girl is having a ball. 

Hedgerows 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 wild-sown trees.  The result looks so prehistoric; you half expect Richard Attenborough, in his Jurassic Park 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. 

Why 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 type.  He shoots game enthusiastically on the estate, and is a serious polo player with his own thriving members’ club in the castle grounds.  (He looks brawny enough to carry his pony the length of the pitch should it run out of puff.) 

We 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. 

So 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. 

Old English Longhorn were introduced to the estate in 2003. Bulls run with the herds all year, so calving occurs naturally rather than seasonally

However, 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 monoculture. 

‘After 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 completely different.’ 

For ages past: Tamworth pigs go foraging among some of the estate's 3,500 acres

Seeing 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 environment?  ‘It’s not really looking back in time and trying to replicate a lost wilderness.  The problem is that things such as mycorrhizal fungi take centuries to come back.  We’ve 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,’ he stresses. 

But 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 they wander.  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 open-sided Mule.  ‘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 herd.’

But, 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.   

It’s 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.   

It’s 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 more.  The 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 shameful.  They couldn’t understand it.  “Thistles, nettles, plants that don’t look like grass?  Where’s the production going to some from?  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 like this.  They said “Brilliant, you’ve got the birds and the insects back.” 

The lake supports diverse wildlife including a heronry comprising some 15 breeding pairs

One subject that hasn’t been broached yet is money.  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.  For what?  A few haunches of venison and a few sides of Longhorn beef. 

‘Financially, we’ve never had such a rosy time’, he corrects, patiently.  ‘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 buildings.  We haven’t had a downturn in rents on those yet.’ 

And 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 is monumental.  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.’ 

The outlook for this thrillingly bizarre experiment should by rights be sun-kissed and unclouded.  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. 

The Castle's policy for culling fallow deer involves a selection of all age groups, as would a natural predator

Yet 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. 

He 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. 

But 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 production. 

Boundaries here between field hedgerows and wood have blurred completely.  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 every year.  As yet another patch of the yellow pops into view, he leaps from the Mule and strides towards it. “I love my ragwort,” he hollers.

 

Charlie Burrell with one of his Tamworths

KNEPP CASTLE:  THE CHANGES

  • Lapwing nesting for the third year running

  • Numbers of skylark increasing

  • A record number of 25 barn owl chicks ringed this year

  • 4 pairs of buzzards now nesting

  • Common blue butterflies have re-appeared

  • Common spotted orchid has appeared for the first time in ex-arable fields

  • 60 miles of stock fencing removed so far – 50 miles to go

  • 20 miles of deer fencing erected so far – 15 miles to go

  • The fencing project has taken a team of 3 men 11 months so far

  • It would have taken 3 months for one man to cut the hedges - now it takes a week to cut the hedges.

  • Hedges cut only on the roadside or in sensitive areas plus for the local Hunt to jump

  • Before 2001, we had 460 Holstein cross Friesian cows in three dairy units with a further 140 heifer followers.

  • We now have 80 Old English Longhorns including their offspring; 7 sows and their piglets; 7 Exmoor ponies and their foals and about 350 fallow deer

  • There are about 400 acres of scrub appearing over the total area of 3500 acres with an estimated 10 - 16,000 tree saplings appearing (say 40 trees per acre on 400 acres).

  • We no longer use any pesticide or herbicide spray on the Estate.