The Argus

A WALK ON TH E WILD SIDE

The Argus, Saturday, January 10 – Sunday, January 11, 2009

Historic estate goes back to nature as low-intensity farming allows animals to return the landscape to its former glory

A PIONEERING farming project in Sussex plans to put mother nature back into agriculture. Reporter SAMUEL UNDERWOOD talks to the man behind the project to discover what inspired him to reject modern farming methods and to hear his views on the future of the countryside.

PICTURES: TONY WOOD

 

FOR 500 years Sir Charles Burrell’s ancestors have tilled the land around Knepp Castle in West Grinstead, near Horsham. 

Like most farmland across the country, its numerous acres were sub-divided by miles of fences and hedgerows.

MORNING CALL: Old English longhorn cattle have replaced the herds of dairy cows on the estate

 

But seven years ago he took the bold step of tearing down those barriers to allow the land to return to something resembling its previous state.

The fields of dairy cows have been replaced by old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and fallow deer which are free to roam the sprawling 3,500-acre estate.

The process, known as rewilding, aims to restore the land to the way it was before the enclosures and later intensive agriculture of modern farming.

By introducing new animals and letting them wander naturally, the land, which has no chemicals or fertilizers spread on it, is directly affected by them.

 

NATURAL STATE: Fallow deer and Exmoor ponies, below, are free to roam the extensive grounds

 

As the animals go about their lives left to their own devices, they and the forces of nature have shaped the land which was previously worked and regulated by human hands.

Wild flowers and native plants and trees have thrived. Insects and butterflies and other small mammals are abundant. Sir Charles proudly proclaims his estate harbours buzzards and a host of songbirds he had never seen on the land before.

He said he and his family had also felt the benefits of the change, experiencing a great sense of relief at seeing the intensive farming which had reached right up to their home replaced by a tranquil scene.

But the land is not without commercial purpose. The cattle, pigs and deer are all farmed for their meat, which is about as free range as it can get.

 

Some of the former dairy buildings and barns have been converted and now house small businesses instead of straw and tractors.

Sir Charles said the ten-year project, which is being overseen by a team of vets and scientists, is supported by Natural England, the Government’s conservation watchdog.

As well as an exciting initiative for the land, the project has been an inspiring personal journey.

A keen naturalist, Sir Charles has always been keen to encourage more wildlife on to his land since he took over in 1987, aged just 21.

He said: “It has been the best thing I have been involved in during my tenure of the Knepp Estate. In the next ten years I would like to see stable populations of all these interesting species that have turned up.”

Other rewilding projects across Britain, such as at Alladale in Sutherland, Scotland, have advocated the reintroduction of beavers, lynx, wolves and even bears.

But Sir Charles said there were no plans to have such creatures at Knepp. He said: “Those proposals are very exciting but what we couldn’t do is bring in any species that could be potentially harmful to dog walkers or anyone else.

“We have 25km of footpaths running through our land and are creating more and we have got to be sensible about these things.

“I would love to see lynx reintroduced in England but maybe we could get some white stork instead.”

With regard to the long-term future of the estate, Sir Charles said his dream was a natural landscape shaped as much as possible by the forces of nature with minimal intrusion from human hands.

He said: “Ideally I want the estate to become a Sussex version of the New Forest with scrubland and woodland encroaching on to it but being held back by grazing animals. It would look very different from the way it does now.” 

While many of the project’s aims have already come to fruition in just seven years, Sir Charles said it would probably take hundreds of years for the land to return to its former state.

The approach is being advocated and taken up by the National Trust and many other landowners across the country.

CHANGE: Sir Charles Burrell has decided to restore the grounds of Knepp Castle, below, built by John Nash