The Daily Telegraph

Knepp Castle: gone to the dogs, and horses, and pigs...

The Daily Telegraph  Saturday July 4  2009

By Angela Wintle

The well-manicured countryside of West Sussex, with its carefully enclosed parcels of pasture, arable crops and conventional farming stock, is pretty typical of the English Home Counties rural scene.

But amid all this order and method, a pioneering land management experiment is giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “right to roam”.

Ponies at Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex

 

On the 3,500-acre Knepp Castle estate, home of the Burrell family for more than 200 years, the land and the animals living there are being left “to do their own thing” in a scheme described as “the most daring wildlife and farming experiment in Britain for years”.

Once a traditional dairy and arable farm, the estate is undergoing ''rewilding’’ under the direction of Charles Burrell, the affable 46 year-old who has had stewardship of the estate since he was 21.

For 15 years Burrell farmed his land as a highly intensive agricultural system, with a sizeable workforce, arable and grain crops growing in well-sprayed fields, three dairies, a plant nursery and milk-bottling plant that also produced luxury ice-cream and yogurts.

Despite all the effort and huge capital expenditure, the enterprise was uneconomic. Burrell was also uneasy with the visual and ecological impact that modern farming was having on the estate and particularly the magnificent parkland, landscaped by Humphrey Repton in the early 19th century.

“We could hardly tell the park existed as the fields of wheat and ryegrass covered the land right up to the castle door,” he says. “The trees were suffering, too. The outlook and pressure of intensive agriculture was beginning to be felt.”

But a new dawn was about to break – and with it the beginning of an experiment unique to lowland Britain. It began modestly in 2001 when Burrell took 500 acres out of production and restored the park, the core of the estate, with the help of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, replanting his cornfields with native grasses and wildflowers.

“The sense of relief in just letting go was extraordinary,” he says. “Suddenly, I was looking out on to land that was doing its own thing, and on cattle and deer that were able to wander where they liked and eat what they liked. Within three years, we were kicking up common blue butterflies every other foot. We’d never seen a common blue in the park before then. It seemed an obvious step to expand the idea and rewild the whole estate, if we could.”

 

In 2002, Burrell sought inspiration by travelling to Oostvaardersplassen, a remarkable reserve in the Netherlands. The 14,000-acre tract of uninhabited fen, scrub, woodland and wild grassland was reclaimed from the sea just 40 years ago and set aside for wildlife. It is now populated with ancient free-roaming Heck cattle, Konik horses and wild birds.

Fired up by his visit, he set to work adapting the model for the Knepp estate. Tearing down internal gates and fences, he replaced his dairy cows with a herd of Old English Longhorn cattle and introduced Exmoor ponies, fallow deer and Tamworth pigs which he set loose to roam at will.

Once the old rhythms of sowing and harvesting had been abandoned, the grazing animals drove the habitat changes and within three years his fields became a mass of thistles, knee-high grasses and wild-sown trees.

The once-silent fields now thrum with insects and bird song and a baseline survey in 2005 recorded innumerable birds, including skylarks, whitethroats, blackcaps, nightingales, stonechats, woodlark and buzzards. Water voles have also been spotted, as well as several nationally rare lepidoptera, beetles, bees and Barbastelle and Bechstein’s bats.

Burrell has now enclosed a further 1,000 acres and plans to allow a 1.5-mile stretch of the River Adur, canalised in the 18th century, to meander naturally across his land, to herald the return of seasonal flooding and attract even more wildlife. It’s the biggest proposed stretch of river to be naturalised in Britain.

The project has captured the imagination of scientists and wildlife experts, though Burrell stresses there’s no specific goal: “It’s just a grand experiment and if it hasn’t worked within the next 15 years when my children are due to take over, then the whole thing could be grubbed up with modern machinery pretty damn quick. But I think it will work and it’s important that it should. As for whether my children will want to take on this madcap project… well, they’ve been conditioned to it. They think it’s perfectly normal for dad to be chasing the pigs!”