farming a legacy

Farming a Legacy 

HELEN HARRISON

2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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'I've inherited my ancestors' legacy of 500 years here.  I want my grandchildren to be able to say when they're my age, "How wonderful to still hear the crickets"', says Charlie Burrell.  'Here' is Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham, Sussex where Charlie is currently in the process of 're-wilding' what was a traditional, 3,500-acre dairy and arable farm.  

Now, it has the feel of a Big Game Park just the animals are different from those in Africa!  Herds of Fallow-deer, pedigree Longhorn-cattle and Exmoor-ponies wandering freely.  And there are Tamworth pigs and piglets which some might think are overenthusiastic in getting to know you.  It's all very different to the intensive, mixed-farm of a few years ago.  

Charlie explains: 'It started in 2001 when we embarked on a series of regeneration and restoration projects aimed primarily at nature-conservation.  In spring 2004 we started re-wilding properly.  Now, for example, you'll see fields that formerly just grew beans are rough-pasture for the Longhorns.' 

It may be trickier to deal with these animals than the usual dairy-herd it takes a brave person to push them around - but there are real benefits.  Longhorns can live out all year and require no supplementary feeding;  their entirely natural diet from cropping the ground produces excellent, free-range, free-roaming organic beef.  

Charlie continues: 'All these animals go where they like, when they like, forage for what they want and drink untreated water: we believe they become immune to many pathogens. they  self-medicate on the rich grassland with its minerals and nutrients.  And a real bonus - they eat the thistles flowers, the farmer's nightmare!

 

Estate Manager Jason Emrich

'The Tamworths range widely in winter.  Their foraging opens-up the grassland so other plants become established.  It's ideal habitat for ant colonies.  We've between ten and fifty pigs, depending on the time of year: sows have up to eight piglets each.  They can turn-over a quarter of an acre of pasture in one night, searching out roots and grubs.  In summer, they'll graze on the grass.  They'll even eat carrion.  The only problem is that unlike ramblers, pigs don't recognise the public footpaths.  These routes are favourites with them, possibly because they've always been grass so have more bugs and roots than the formerly cultivated, surrounding fields.

Knepp used to maintain 600 dairy-cows and several thousand acres of arable.  Charlie admits methods had intensified during the first fifteen years of his management.  Records catalogue Knepp for nearly a millennium.  It is steeped in history. The original castle dates back to the twelfth century, ruins still visible from the A24 alongside. The picturesque lake started as a large, sixteenth-century pond, created to power an iron-foundry.

The present castle, home to Charlie and his family, was designed in the early nineteenth century by John Nash in parkland probably landscaped by Humphrey Repton. However, while like other historic estates, its buildings and trees reveal its history, its usage today is unique in the UK.  What brought about this wholesale change of direction? 

'Farming was in steep decline.  We'd decided to finish with the dairy herds in 2000.  We asked ourselves what we should do with the land.  The soil isn't good - mostly Sussex Low wealden Clay, a poor soil that reverts to natural forest quickly - so we hadn't many options.  I'd always considered myself an amateur naturalist and been interested in wildlife.  I was enormously impressed by a visit to Oostvardersplassen in Holland with environmentalist Ted Green in 2002.'  

Whilst surrounded by some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, Oostvardersplassen is 5,600 hectares (13,440 acres), of entirely-uninhabited polder land, scrub woodland and wild grassland reclaimed from the sea in 1968. It is likened to the primeval marshes that existed around the estuaries of the larger European rivers.  Since the 1980s it has been home to free-roaming red-deer, heck cattle and Konik horses.  It is an internationally-important wetland for migrating birds.   

'We'd introduced Fallow-deer in 2002', continues Charlie.  'Wild Roe deer were already present.  I looked into the possibilities of re-wilding and it went on from there.  The sense of relief in "letting-go", looking-out on land that was doing its own thing, was quite extraordinary.'

Boundaries were suitably fenced.  Breeds were selected and introduced.  Fields which had grown cereals, rape and rye were sown with grass-mixtures and wildflowers.  Wetland habitats were encouraged around the river Adur: now, former meadows are a mass of sallow and pools, home for snipe and maybe, in the future, beaver. 

 

The intention is to extend wild grazing and free roaming to the whole estate and diversify the mix of herbivores.  Charlie's vision is a huge, wildland site.  'We could introduce European Wood bison and red deer.  Wild boar are only a few miles away from us already and are likely to colonise in the future.' 

Currently, 1,500 acres is managed under an intensely-monitored Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS).  'They need to know what's going on.  How are we doing it?  What happens as a result?  We want a diverse system of wild habitats where biodiversity can thrive.'  

A base-line survey was conducted in 2005.  Already there have been noticeable increases in the wildlife and biodiversity: flocks of Goldfinches hundred strong; skylarks, plovers, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, white-throats, blackcaps, nightingales and murmurings of starlings. At least four pairs of buzzards have colonised.  Stonechats, previously a species not-at all typical of the area, have arrived.  Red kite have been recorded.  Water shrews, a relatively scarce mammal in the UK, are present as are several nationally scarce lepidoptera and other scarce beetles and bees.  Charlie says that one of the most significant differences for him has been in the sounds he hears around the farm.  'It's just buzzing and humming away with myriads of insects as well as lots of bird-song.'    

CSS subsidises the costs of getting arable land back to grass: most farming for commercial crops is subsidised so there's an equal case for subsidising activities the market doesn't provide such as wildlife and the eco-benefits which spring from it.  However, CSS will finish in 2014.  Another source of finance has been the Single Farm Payment scheme (SFP), justified because the farm is producing pork and beef, but this may also finish in a few years.  

Knepp is already geared-up to this.  'We're privileged because we've also now core-businesses of property-management, light-industrial storage, craft workshops and other small operations from our old farm-buildings. But the re-wilding must justify itself.  The herd of 120 Longhorns will produce best-quality, superior-tasting, organic, wild-range beef.  Tamworth piglets will be for sale as well as free-range, free-roaming, organic pork.  There'll be venison from the deer.  All are outstanding meats of the highest-quality for a specific market.  And we're still developing alternative uses for our buildings and pursuing other marketing initiatives.' 

An impressive team oversees the project and advises on the techniques and dynamics of re-wilding.  It includes representatives from Oostvardersplassen, The Large Herbivore Foundation (which supplies similar European projects with wild cattle, horses and bison), English Nature and The National Trust.  Other consultants monitor the economic implications and other outcomes.  

Is there potential for an ecological network of similar farms in southern England and other lowland regions?  Could farms like Knepp be 'core-areas' in such networks, linked by corridors or buffer-zones?  Some neighbouring estates have already joined in. Charli hopes more will follow. Knepp is near The Sussex Wildwood Project, the RSPB Reserve at Pulborough,  and extensive woodland on the Weald and South Downs. 

Further information contact:

 

Knepp Castle Estate Office, Knepp Castle, West Grinstead, West Sussex RH13 8LJ Tel: +44 (0) 1403 741 235 Email enquiries@knepp.co.uk Website www.knepp.co.uk 

Home Grown Produce when available to order on-line.  Knepp Castle also offers property to rent, venues to hire. Various Educational Services are offered as part of its Wildland Project.