After years of loss-making arable and dairy farming, restoring the Repton park around the house in 2002 showed us a way to work with the land, rather than constantly battling against it. We began to consider rolling out nature conservation across the whole Estate.
The kind of conservation we 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’. We were 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.
Vera identifies grazing animals as a fundamental and necessary force of natural disturbance. Previously, the impact of herbivores on the landscape of temperate zone Europe has been largely overlooked. Vera argues that we have forgotten about the huge numbers of megafauna – many of the species now extinct – that would have played a hugely influential part in our ecology.
Before human impact, animals like wisent (European bison), elk (known in America as moose), tarpan (the original wild horse), aurochs (the original wild ox), European beaver and the omnivorous wild boar, together with red deer and roe deer, Vera argues, would have been present in Europe in huge numbers – similar to the numbers we see in Africa today.
Their different grazing techniques and methods of physical disturbance – from trampling and puddling to rootling, rubbing, snapping branches and de-barking trees – together with their ability to transfer nutrients and disperse seeds over wide areas, would have stimulated a complex mosaic of habitats. Temperate zone Europe, Vera maintains, would have been characterised not by ubiquitous species-poor closed canopy forest – as is commonly thought – but by a more open form of wood-pasture driven by grazing animals. Europe would, for the most part, have been a dynamic, shifting landscape of open-grown trees, emerging scrub, grazing lawns, groves and thorny thickets.
The battle between these two opposing forces of nature – animal disturbance and vegetation succession – generates habitat complexity and biodiversity. Reintroducing some of these animals to the landscape – using domestic descendants as proxies for some of the extinct species – can have a hugely positive impact on nature, as Frans Vera and his colleagues have demonstrated in the pioneering Oostvaardersplassen project in Holland. In nearby Kransvlaak, too, the introduction of a few of bison and Konik ponies into a small nature reserve has proved an extraordinary stimulus for biodiversity.
Natural predators such as bears, lynx, wolves and wolverine would obviously have played a huge role in the pre-human eco-system, too. The possibilities for reintroducing these species into our densely populated modern landscapes, however, are limited. But the Oostvaardersplassen and other projects like it have shown that, even without predators, introducing a mix of free-roaming herbivores into an area can produce remarkable results. As Frans Vera says, “the intention is not to try to recreate the past. That will always impossible. Our world is irrevocably changed. But we can try and create something interesting and valuable with nature, using the components that are left to us.”
Intrigued, we felt it would be exciting to see what happened if grazing animals were released into the areas of the estate beyond the Repton park – the 2,500 acres of former arable land that had, thanks to the decoupling of farm payments, been taken out of intensive agriculture and were now lying fallow.
In December 2002, Charlie launched our 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’.
Norton-Griffiths, M., and Sinclair, A.R.E., Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem. (University of Chicago Press, 1979)
Vera, F.W.M. Grazing Ecology and Forest History (CABI Publishing, 2000)
Vera, F.W.M., ‘The dynamic European forest’. Arboricultural Journal, Vol 26, pp.179-211. 2002.
Vera, F.W.M, Bakker, E. & Olff, H. ‘The influence of large herbivores on tree recruitment and forest dynamics’. In: Danell, K., Duncan, P., et al (eds) Large Herbivore Ecology, Ecosystem Dynamics and Conservation, pp.203-231 (Cambridge University Press, 2006.)
Vera, F.W.M. ‘Can’t see the trees for the forest’. In: D. Rotherham (ed). Trees, Forested Landscapes and Grazing Animals – a European perspective on woodlands and grazed treescapes.’ (Routledge, ch. 6, p.99-126. 2013)
Vera, F.W.M. ‘Large-scale nature development - the Oostvaardersplassen’. British Wildlife 29, June 2009.
Vera, F.W.M. ‘The shifting baseline syndrome in restoration ecology.’ In: Restoration and History – the search for a usable environmental past, ed. Hall, M., pp 98-110 (Routledge Studies in Modern History, 2010)
Vera, F.W.M., Bakker, E., & Olff, H. ‘Large herbivores: missing partners of western European light-demanding tree and shrub species?’ In: Large Herbivore Ecology, Ecosystem Dynamics and Conservation, ed. K. Danell, P. Duncan, R. Bergstrom & J. Pastor. (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Letter of Intent to Natural England from Sir Charles Burrell, Bt., December 2002.
Time-line for Rewilding Knepp