inherited my ancestors' legacy of 500 years
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.
it has the feel of a Big Game Park – just
the animals are different from those in
Herds of Fallow-deer, pedigree
Longhorn-cattle and Exmoor-ponies wandering
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.
explains: 'It started in 2001 when we
embarked on a series of regeneration and
restoration projects aimed primarily at
In spring 2004 we started re-wilding
for example, you'll see fields that formerly
just grew beans are rough-pasture for the
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.
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.
real bonus - they eat the thistles
flowers, the farmer's nightmare!
Manager Jason Emrich
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
They'll even eat carrion.
The only problem is that unlike
ramblers, pigs don't recognise the public
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.'
used to maintain 600 dairy-cows and
several thousand acres of arable.
Charlie admits methods had
intensified during the first fifteen years of his
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.
castle, home to Charlie
and his family, was designed in the early
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?
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
I'd always considered myself an
amateur naturalist and been interested in
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
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
introduced Fallow-deer in 2002', continues
'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
Boundaries were suitably fenced.
Breeds were selected and introduced.
Fields which had grown cereals, rape
and rye were sown with grass-mixtures and
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
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.'
1,500 acres is managed under an
intensely-monitored Countryside Stewardship
'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
A base-line survey was conducted in
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
Stonechats, previously a species
not-at all typical of the area, have
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
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
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
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
And we're still developing
alternative uses for our buildings and
pursuing other marketing initiatives.'
impressive team oversees the project and
advises on the techniques and dynamics of
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
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.
Castle Estate Office, Knepp Castle, West
Grinstead, West Sussex RH13 8LJ Tel:
+44 (0) 1403 741 235 Email
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