estate pushes boundaries

Prominent estate pushes boundaries

Jason Emrich reflects on the bold ideas being 

implemented at Knepp Castle in West Sussex

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Countryside Stewardship was the catalyst back in 2002, which lead to the restoration of parkland around Knepp Castle, near Horsham. Then several years of successively poor arable commodity prices helped to encourage the owner, Sir Charles Burrell, to consider a conservation project, the likes of which have not been seen before in the south east.

“I fell in with a bad crowd,” says Charlie, “ecologists, conservationists, scientists, free thinkers. It struck me that my father's advice back in the 1980s - to ring-fence and ranch - might actually be the best way of managing this estate. Now with the support of Natural England we are about to embark on preparing our third massive enclosure, which will see over 2000 acres of the estate ring-fenced in three adjacent blocks. We hope one day to link them New Forest style”

 

NARNIA-LIKE ENVIRONMENT

The science behind the project is 10,000 years old, literally. It is to do with maximising biodiversity, which in nature is generally associated with woodland margins. But rather than man determining where this succession from pasture to woodland is, it is the animals - cattle, deer, ponies and pigs - that drive it by their grazing, browsing and disturbance. If you fly over Knepp in 20 years it will be difficult to distinguish the traditional boundaries between woods and fields, as the latter scrub up and the woods are thinned by grazing. And the areas kept open by animals will move and change as populations boom and bust.

It's messy and can be unpopular with the neighbours - or at least the perception of it can be. Personally I live in the middle of one of the blocks and am thrilled that my children are growing up in this environment. Friends enjoy rough shooting here and liken it to Narnia - not many spaniels come face to face with a farrowing pig while hunting for wild game!

Whether it's moral or not depends on your definition. Those that feel we should be using this marginal land to maximise food production may think that what we are doing is immoral. We prefer to celebrate the undoubted wildlife enhancement and carbon sequestration that the project offers; we cannot just rely on the rainforests to look after us! Besides we are still farming beef, deer and pigs albeit on a very extensive scale, in a system where natural processes predominate.

 

LAND WILL NOT BE DEVALUED

Natural England support's the project because it is of a scale and design that provides genuine space and opportunity for wildlife. With the threats of climate change and an increasing global population, it is places like this that we need to protect. By that I don't mean that we are hoping for an SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) prescription - in fact quite the opposite, the land has been with the Burrells for 200 years and it is essential that the next generations are given the freedom to decide whether the project works for them. So this is not a forestry project devaluing land, nor is it totally reliant on subsidy, but it is a fully-reversible attempt to turn back the clock to a time long before chemicals and autumn cropping put paid to our farmland birds and other wildlife. .

Is all this financially sustainable? Generally rents achieved on properties that bound the "parks" are greater than those that stare at a wall of wheat, and one would assume that house prices would fare the same. The system has also freed up a vast infrastructure of agricultural buildings, many of which are now business premises. And as for agri-subsidies, we are assured that the policy makers are channeling more money in this direction, and although we know we won't benefit from the bumper years of farming, these don't seem to come around very often these days. .

 

Jason Emrich is resident agent at Knepp Castle Estate, and also heads the Haywards Heath rural department.

 

 

Knepp Castle's neighbours may think the project's messy, but the wildlife love it.