The land at Knepp is not conducive to modern intensive farming. 320 metres of heavy Low Weald clay over a bedrock of limestone, the soil is like concrete in summer and unfathomable porridge in winter. For seventeen years after taking over the 3,500-acre Estate from his grandparents in 1983, Charlie Burrell did his utmost to make Knepp Home Farm profitable but it was impossible to compete with larger, industrialised farms on better soils.
In February 2000 the decision was made to sell the dairy herds and farm machinery, and put the arable out to contract – clearing the Estate’s mountainous debts.
A moment of epiphany came in 2001 when Knepp received Countryside Stewardship funding to restore the Repton park in the middle of the Estate - 350 acres that had been under the plough since the Second World War. The park restoration provided a chance to look at the land in an entirely different way and suggested the possibility of rolling out nature conservation across the whole Estate.
The kind of conservation Charlie had in mind was a ‘process-led’, non-goal-orientated project where, as far as possible, nature takes the driving seat – an approach that has come to be known as ‘rewilding’. He was particularly keen to explore the ideas of grazing ecology promulgated by Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera, whose ground-breaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History, was translated into English from the Dutch in 2000.
In December 2002, Charlie launched his vision for rewilding Knepp by sending a Letter of Intent to Natural England, the government’s advisory body for the environment, setting out his plans to establish ‘A Biodiverse Wilderness Area in the Low Weald of Sussex’.
It took years for the idea to be wholeheartedly supported by government but in 2010 the Knepp Wildland project received Higher Level Stewardship funding. It is now a leading light in the conservation movement, an experiment that has produced astonishing wildlife successes in a relatively short space of time and offers solutions for some of our most pressing problems – like soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, pollinating insects and carbon sequestration. Visited by numerous conservation organisations, including the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust, as well as policy makers, farmers and landowners, Knepp is shaping the future of nature conservation.
As Professor Sir John Lawton, author of the 2010 Making Space for Nature report says:
“Knepp Estate is one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects in the UK, and indeed in Europe. If we can bring back nature at this scale and pace just 16 miles from Gatwick airport we can do it anywhere. I’ve seen it. It’s truly wonderful, and it fills me with hope.”