CLA - Education

A KNEPP IN THE AIR

FEBRUARY 2009 I LAND&BUSINESS 

Jessie Cooke reports from a CLA estate that has become one of Britain's most exciting centers for countryside education

 

WHEN YOU think of a safari you would normally imagine tracking the big five across the wild plains of Africa. However, as I found out when I visited Knepp Castle, it is possible to experience a safari which is just as exciting and much closer to home.  

Knepp Castle Estate, in West Sussex, owned by CLA member Sir Charles Burrell, is rich in history. Until recently most of the land on the estate was devoted to traditional arable and dairy farming, but in 2001 Sir Charles was forced to recognise this was no longer economically viable. Disheartening as this was, it gave him the chance to embark on an exciting project: to restore the old listed park around the house and allow the land to go back to nature. The result is an educational experience like no other.  

Today 1,500 acres of land at Knepp are part of a project to develop a natural grazing regime. This has been so successful that another 1,000 acres are now being allowed to go wild, supported by Natural England and the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.  

Because Knepp is so unusual there is a real need to educate the public, landown­ers, farmers and children about what the estate is doing. Sir Charles says: "There will always be people who think we have taken the wrong route with the estate and that it should be in intensive agricultural production, but the most important thing is that everyone can come and see for them­selves and make up their own minds."   

 

 

Since the estate started offering free educational access visits in 2001 everyone from local councillors to conservation advisers has visited. Most visits take place in the summer when wild flowers are in abundance and fallow deer are in their prime. So on a chilly winter day I found myself not in the bespoke carrying trailer which ferries visitors around the Estate, but in Sir Charles' car enjoying a personal safari.  

 

HORSE SENSE "2,400 acres of land at Knepp are part of a project to develop a natural grazing regime"  

The Estate is stocked with a variety of grazing animals that are free to roam across untreated fields filled with birds, insects and grasses. We spot fallow deer, Exmoor ponies and longhorn cattle and drive through fields full of creeping thistle and pastures and water meadows ideal for waders.  

TAMWORTH TIME Sir Charles Burrell with one of Knepp's most popular attractions  

 

There is so much to learn; the history of the ponies, the mating rituals of the deer and the variety of plant communities now thriving. The Tamworth pigs are nowhere to be seen, but it is enough to know they are there.  

Because the animals are in effect wild, some people may have reservations about visiting Knepp. Sir Charles says: "Some people may feel apprehensive about being out in the open with the longhorns, but because our herd is a mix of ages and sexes there is a good balance and the animals are relaxed."  

For younger explorers visits are tailor made, but typically cover everything from the history of the estate to orienteering. One visit can incorporate IT, photography, art and drama. Julie, who coordinates the school visits, says: "Some children who find it hard to express themselves find that outside their communication skills really improve."  

There is, however, one activity that really stands out. Julie says: "All the children absolutely love dissecting owl pellets to see what they have been eating! It is disgusting - but lots of fun!" Pupils from the local school have camped overnight learning how to make fires, put up tents and toast marshmallows. She says: "It is a wonderful bonding exercise and really helps them get to know each other." 

 

Older students have also found Knepp a useful agricultural resource. Students from Plumpton College are frequent visi­tors and the Estate has been the subject of many University research dissertations.  

The wonderful thing about Knepp is that it is an educational resource for all generations. It reconnects you not just with nature, farming and food, but also with the experience of wild animals - a rarity in modern Britain. On a sunny day I get the feeling that Knepp would feel less like a rural English county and more like a savannah.    

factfile For more information or to arrange a group visit, please contact the agent Jason Emrich at Savills on 01403 741235 enquiries@knepp.co.uk www.knepp.co www.cla.org.uk