Eats shoots and leaves

We're in the middle of the dramatic deer rut season here at Knepp Wildland, with the red deer having just reached their grande finale and the fallow well into the swing of it. The damp autumn air is charged with their primeval roars and belches, and the not entirely unpleasant stench of pheromones.

What great timing, then, that BBC's Countryfile team, with presenter Adam Henson, visited us a couple of weeks ago to film the rewilding project and were able to get some lovely footage of red stags battling for supremacy in one of Knepp's laggs, or water meadows.

The Countryfile programme is due to be aired on 19th November 2017 - so do tune in to hear Charlie Burrell discussing the rewilding project and how it all began, Isabella Tree talking about our wildlife safaris and engaging the public, our stockman Patrick Toe introducing our longhorn cattle, and Penny Green explaining the wildlife monitoring side of things.

A handsome red deer stag

A handsome red deer stag

The fallow and red deer are important agents in the rewilding project here at Knepp. Along with the our other free-roaming herbivores - Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and Old English longhorn cattle - they are creators of habitat. 

Browsing red deer in a scrape

Browsing red deer in a scrape

Their different grazing techniques - the way their mouths work, what they like to eat - has an enormous effect on vegetation. The way they physically disturb the land, too – from trampling and puddling, rolling and rubbing, snapping branches with their antlers and de-barking trees in winter – together with their ability to transfer nutrients and disperse seeds over wide areas, stimulate opportunities for plants and shrubs. Together with the other herbivores, they create an ever-shifting mosaic, a kaleidoscope if you like, of complex habitats - the transient, messy margins in which life thrives.

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We're not a target-led project like most conservation programmes. We don't have set objectives or particular species that we're aiming to sustain; we simply allow the herbivores free rein and see what comes. The results have been spectacular. Incredibly rare species, like nightingales, turtle doves, Bechstein's bats, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, purple emperor butterflies, and peregrine falcons are now breeding here. More common species are rocketing, too - all of them following in the slipstream of our free-roaming herbivores.

A longhorn cow feeding on Sallow

A longhorn cow feeding on Sallow

Of course, we do manage the project in one crucial respect - the numbers of animals we have here. Too few, and the land would soon revert to species-poor closed canopy woodland; too many and the land would be overgrazed, reducing habitat for other species. It's this constant battle between vegetation succession and animal disturbance that creates the dynamism, and that we seek to maintain with the balance of numbers.

So, every year, we cull a certain number of animals to keep herbivore populations in check. This produces a vital source of income for the estate. Our organic, pasture-fed Knepp Wild Range meat is much in demand amongst restaurateurs, food connoisseurs and the health conscious. Animals that have access to an entirely natural diet and are free to choose when, where and what they eat, are not only happier and healthier in themselves, they produce meat and fat that is positively good for humans - a stark contrast to the meat, fats and dairy products produced in intensive systems from animals fed artificially on grain and performance feeds.

You can buy Knepp Wild Range meat in our farm shop, which is open until the end of October. It will open again, at the start of our Safari season, at Easter 2018.

If you've missed out on this year's Deer Rut Safaris, the 2018 safari calendar is already available for booking on our Knepp Safaris website.

Leaf it alone

It's been great weather for moth trapping, and with National Moth Night over the weekend I thought I'd share some of the lovely moths that we've caught here at Knepp Wildland recently.

At this time of year the moths are beautiful autumnal hues of yellows, pinks, oranges and browns - lovely for us to look at, but for them it's a survival strategy.

This Angles Shades is well-camouflaged as it looks like a dead leaf

This Angles Shades is well-camouflaged as it looks like a dead leaf

The Sallow moth looking pretty similar to the leaf of it's namesake tree in the autumn

The Sallow moth looking pretty similar to the leaf of it's namesake tree in the autumn

As moths rest up during the day, in trees and bushes, it's a time when they're quite vulnerable, so what better way to evade predation than to blend in with the surroundings? Looking at these photos it's clear to see what they all look like: leaves!

A Frosted Orange blending in with the autumn colours

A Frosted Orange blending in with the autumn colours

The quirky-looking September Thorn looking like a raggedy leaf

The quirky-looking September Thorn looking like a raggedy leaf

The exquisitally iridescent Burnished Brass 

The exquisitally iridescent Burnished Brass 

Other moths have warning colouration, like this huge Red Underwing: it has cryptic colours when at rest but if disturbed by a predator it flashes a red petticoat to startle and deter.

A Red Underwing showing a cheeky flash of red   by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

A Red Underwing showing a cheeky flash of red

 

by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

A Bird in the Hand...

Over one million birds were ringed by British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteers in Britain and Ireland in 2016. Ringing helps us understand more about birds: about why populations are changing, where different species spend their breeding seasons and where they spend their winters, when they migrate and how long they live.

Here at Knepp Wildland we’ve been ringing since 2015; as well as contributing to BTO’s important research it’s also a way of learning which species are utilising the scrub. In the autumn/winter we catch Redwing that roost in the scrub and feed up on the berries, in the spring we concentrate on nest finding so we can monitor the success rates of different species, and also ring chicks in the nest such as these Dunnocks:

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Then come late summer/autumn we’re catching birds in mist nets - picking up birds on migration that are feeding up on the fruits and the insects in the scrub – lots of Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Reed Warblers.

The other day we received an email to say that a bird ringed at Knepp on 5th August had been caught somewhere else. It was a juvenile Reed Warbler:

photo: Sophie Trice/Tony Davis

photo: Sophie Trice/Tony Davis

Amazingly, just 16 days after being ringed at Knepp it was caught in Noain, Navarra, Spain…918km away! The Google map below shows the distance between Knepp and Noain:

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We don’t know when it started its migration but it’s just fascinating that a bird weighing 11.5g (when we ringed it) made this long journey south within a couple of weeks of being at Knepp. Looking back through the BTO’s ringing recoveries I spotted a Reed Warbler that was also ringed in Sussex on 08/09/2016 and then recovered in Noain just 3 days later!

Huge thanks go to Tony Davis, our bird ringing trainer, for all his mentoring and support.

by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

Holy Cow, Batman!

Knepp Wildland hosts 13 of the 17 resident species of bat found in the UK – some have roosts here and some commute in from surrounding areas to feed on the flourishing insects.

At the beginning of the project, in 2001, only five different species had been recorded here but since then the restored waterways, growing-out hedgerows and insect-rich pastures have provided perfect feeding grounds. As a result of this the bat species list has grown.

One study showed radio-tagged female Barbastelles commute from their nursery roosts in The Mens Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve (near Petworth) - 18km away - to forage over Knepp Wildland.

On a recent Knepp Bat and Moth Safari we were able to meet up with batman Martyn Cooke, and his band of volunteers, doing a bat survey around the Hammer Pond. On this occasion, three species of bat were caught: Soprano Pipistrelle, Bechstein’s Bat and Whiskered Bat.

The Whiskered Bat feeds on a variety of insects, such as moths, so they are particularly susceptible to pesticides. Pesticides are no longer used here at Knepp, since the move from intensive agriculture, so there is a plentiful supply of food for them.

Whiskered Bat at Knepp - photo by Ryan Greaves

Whiskered Bat at Knepp - photo by Ryan Greaves

Surveys at Knepp in 2009 indicated that Bechstein’s Bat were breeding here, a very exciting find as this species is one of the UK’s rarest and most endangered bat species. It has extra protection under Annex II of the European Habitats Directive.

Bechstein's Bat at Knepp - photo by Ryan Greaves

Bechstein's Bat at Knepp - photo by Ryan Greaves

Bechstein's Bats feed on small invertebrates, such as small moths. A dropping analysis in nearby counties showed a penchant for grasshoppers and dung-flies. We have plenty of dung-flies at Knepp on the Longhorn cattle dung: no ivermectins going in to the cattle means droppings full of delicious dung-flies and other insects that bats, birds and other wildlife can feed on.

Come along on one of our Bat and Moth Safaris to learn more about the bats of Knepp.

by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

Rush Hour

The Rush Wainscot is a Red Data Book moth, which is confined to just five areas in the UK. West Sussex is one of those areas with a couple of hotspots around the Horsham area. Its larval foodplants are Common Club-rush, Yellow Iris, Bulrush and Lesser Bulrush, of which we have plenty here at Knepp Millpond.

Knepp Millpond

It was hunted for and not found in surveys during 1995. During baseline surveys for the rewilding project in 2005 it was targeted again, and this time one was discovered. It was caught in a moth trap on Knepp Millpond, but despite further attempts to catch this moth in following years it was not found again, this included several fruitless attempts in 2015 and 2016.

Always up for a challenge we thought we’d target another part of the estate this year, so we put moth traps out after our August Bat and Moth Safari, at the western end of the Hammer Pond. The habitat here is wonderful and just right for the Rush Wainscot.

We sorted through the moth trap at about 1.00am as we were planning on packing up: at this time the temperature had dropped and the moths had started slowing down. There was a good variety of different moths, with the autumnal-looking Dusky Thorn being one of the most numerous:

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And we caught this unusual form of Clouded Border:

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We had got to the bottom of the last trap...as we turned over the last egg carton we spotted something that looked pretty good to us. At last, a Rush Wainscot!

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We're really pleased that it's still at Knepp; we won’t give up looking for it again at the Millpond though, it would be good to know that it’s still there too.

by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

Electric Eels

The Environment Agency (EA) carried out a river restoration at Knepp in 2011. Since then we've been collecting data to see how the river develops and what wildlife moves in.

This week Gareth and Damon from the EA did a fish survey along the southern part of the river restoration. They used a technique called electrofishing - this temporarily stuns the fish in order to be able to catch them and identify them. Here's Gareth looking like a Ghostbuster:

There's something about fish that brings out your inner-child...so I excitedly had my head in the bucket examining the first few net loads as they came out: Roach, Eel (I love seeing Eels, such a rarity now), Stone Loach, Three-spined Stickleback, and this beautiful Perch:

Then came Gudgeon, Chub, Dace, and this young Pike:

And this has got to be my favourite, the Bullhead:

Once the fish had been identified and measured they were put back in to the river:

Ten species was a really respectable total for a river in its early days of recovery. It was good to see fish of different ages using the river too, with young fish sheltering in the nooks and crannies provided by the coarse woody debris.

The hope is that as the river settles down and the bank-side vegetation becomes more established we will see an increase in biodiversity. With this in mind we will continue our surveys on the river and surrounding floodplain scrapes to see what fish, plants, snails, beetles and dragonflies move in over the years to come.

by Penny Green, Knepp Ecologist

Rewilding Britain: Planning, Policy and Practice

12 sept 2017

Rewilding aims to restore natural ecosystems using keystone species in a way that benefits wildlife and people. Can rewilding really be win-win for wildlife and landowners? What are the practical, political and economic risks? How can it be planned and implemented to maximise the benefits? These questions and more will be tackled during a one day conference jointly hosted by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and Wildwood Trust on Tuesday 12th September, 2017.

Do come to this conference at the University of Kent. Charlie will be speaking.