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Vera Conference

FREEING THE LANDSCAPE: Grazing animals as ecosystems engineers

The Vera Conference, held at Knepp in June 2017, was a meeting to celebrate the hypothesis of eminent Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, twenty years after the publication of his ground-breaking ‘Grazing Ecology & Forest History’. Prominent mollusc, beetle and lichen specialists presented evidence to support Vera’s theory that the presence of great herds of large herbivores would have played a key role in maintaining open areas in temperate zone Europe. Many species, especially those associated with old trees, the speakers argued, would have struggled in closed canopy woodland but would have thrived in a more open landscape. Our landscape was far more likely to have been characterised by wood pasture – a patchwork of grasslands, thorny scrub and bramble, supporting groves of trees and gigantic, individual open-grown trees such as oaks. At Knepp we have put Vera’s theory into practice. Free-roaming large herbivores living in our emerging scrubland have demonstrated enormous benefits for wildlife by creating a kaleidoscope of complex and dynamic habitats. The animals’ disturbance has prevented vegetation from evolving into ubiquitous closed canopy woodland. This throws into question the conventional interpretation of pollen records that, up until now, promoted the theory that Mesolithic Europe would have been covered in closed-canopy ‘primeval forest’.

A snapshot of the two days

Mick Crawley – Summing up

Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London, an ecologist with special interest in plant-herbivore interactions.

Summing Up

Day One


Founding member of the Ancient Tree Forum and former English Nature Conservation consultant to the Crown Estate at Windsor



Renowned ecologist and ornithologist, involved in the Oostvaardersplassen since 1979

Freeing the landscape – grazing animals as ecosystems engineers


Geoarchaeologist and environmental archaeologist who has specialises in in the 10,000-year history of chalk grasslands.

Chalk grasslands: man or nature? The archaeological subfossil snail evidence


Freelance Ecological Consultant

Beetles open a window into the past – sub-fossil evidence of a more open post-glacial forest.


Ecologist and lichenologist, has spent 30 years learning from the New Forest and visiting old growth woodlands across Europe.

Lichens, grazing and woodland structure; or a tale of two forests


UK Conservation adviser, Woodland Trust and specialist in ancient and other veteran trees, wood pastures and parkland.

Perceptions of primeval forest – Britain’s ancient oaks challenge the myth


President of the British Ecological Society, trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute

Grazers and Browsers for Conservation in the UK


National specialist on nature for the National Trust, is writing on the ecology of the Purple Emperor butterfly. Major breakthroughs have been made at Knepp.

Discovering the Purple Emperor – insights gained from rewilding at Knepp


Owner of Knepp Castle Estate and chair of Rewilding Britain.

Rewilding Knepp: how the economics stack up


Knepp’s resident ecologist is putting together the ten year review of the rewilding project.

Turtle doves and nightingales: the wildlife results of Knepp

Day Two


Scottish Director, Rewilding Britain

A Vision for a Rewilded Scotland


Landscape ecologist, and grazing and predation expert at ARK Nature. Since 2005 he has worked on the reintroduction of wisent (bison) in the Dutch dunes near Zandvoort.

Bison, wild cattle and horses in the Kraansvlak and Maashorst, The Netherlands


Head of Environment for Forest Enterprise England, observer on the Rewilding Britain Board of trustees and former Nature Conservancy Council forest ecologist

Change and Necessity: the way ahead for UK Conservation


Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, President of the British Ecological Society, and a huge fan of Frans Vera.

Future challenges and opportunities for rewilding and restoration   


Leader of the groundbreaking 2010 review of England’s wildlife sites -‘Making Space for Nature’, and President of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (God’s own county)

Making Even More Space for Nature

Our 12+ Policy

Knepp Wildland Safaris and campsite are all about the quiet and patient observation of nature.

Some of the species we are likely to encounter are shy or can be frightened by loud noises or sudden movements. Our campsite with open-air fire-pits, wood-burning stoves and an on-site pond is unsuitable for small children.

For this reason, our safaris, holiday cottages and campsite are suitable only for children of 12 and over.

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