'Re-wilding' – what does this mean?

Knepp

If we want to see our countryside, our farmland rich in nature's bounty and be proud of our small islands astonishing variety, we should all be allowing and encouraging the return of nature.

Deep in the beautiful West Sussex countryside sits a secret. You could easily drive past it and not know what's going on behind it's tall flowing hedgerows full of wild flowers and bird song. Knepp is an estate, and for all intents and purposes it's a farming estate, but step behind those billowing hedgerows and a whole new countryside opens up. Knepp is 're-wilding'!

'Re-wilding' – what does this mean? It sounds like lynx, bear and wolves roaming, large animals, people keep out! But this is not the case at Knepp, they don't have the room for a start. Re-wilding at Knepp is more like less interference by man, less messing about, less crops, less livestock, less chemicals (nearly none in fact) less everything, just letting nature do what we've forgotten, what she does best, just getting on with life. Knepp is a trial run at what happens if you let nature be in charge (though there is minimal management in case she gets a bit carried away.) The aim is to let nature take its course and monitor the results. There's no aim or particular habitat they want to create, just the constant change of the landscape and its inhabitants, in all its glory.

knepp

knepp

The estate is 3,500 acres of previously farmed land, the kind you see all over Britain, something we assume in our lifetimes is normal...beautiful even?? But, the farm was struggling and the owners of Knepp felt it was fighting against its land and soil and they were not happy with the way things were going – Knepp was in trouble. In order to save the land they loved the owners of Knepp looked beyond the surface of their farmed land and thought...how can we save this, how can we leave something meaningful for the next generation? They wondered, what would happen if we just left nature to take its course?  The results of this thought are astonishing and heartening.

The estate is divided into 3 areas, mainly because a road divides the site, so this is no massive wilderness but still part of the working landscape for the people who live there. One section to the north is parkland, with scattered trees, thick hedgerows and open grassland. To the south was arable, now covered in thick 'kaleidoscope' of scrub, ever changing from one year to the next.

Knepp

Knepp

They use the largest herbivores they can to create this mosaic of habitats, cows – but not your dairy cows but big long horn cattle – with long horns! They also have Tamworth pigs and red deer. These animals are stocked in low densities, so low you can have difficulty in even seeing them, so that although there is some control they are left to roam as they feel, creating pockets of open grass amongst the scrub, scratching at trees and making wallows in the ground.

Knepp

Knepp

"This is how the countryside always used to look”

All this creates a wonderful diverse habitat full of wildlife. Some species of note have appeared and the area is now a breeding hotspot for purple emperor butterfly, a rare southern species with restricted distribution, turtle doves, our fastest declining bird, and nightingale, another fast declining species. These are just the rarities, the popular ones that people want to see. And see them you can, depending on the time of year and how dedicated you are to getting out of bed at 5am. In order to make Knepp a viable business it has used this opportunity for people to experience and witness what nature looks when left to its own devices. They've introduced complimentary enterprises to the ethos, there's camping in a grassy field backed by magnificent oak tree woodland – the silence at night is astonishing, apart from the singing of the nightingale which you can hear from the comfort of your sleeping bag and the glorious dawn chorus. For more luxury they have yurts, bell tents and shepherds huts both within the woodland and the field. There's even a tree house to stay in! All of these have associated low impact amenities, essential in this modern age, a large rustic wooden built covered kitchen area with seating, cooking facilities and even a large fridge freezer. Outside showers and baths with views of the oak trees above your head (although experienced by the author when the weather was warm) and composting toilets. For the less adventurous there is also a fully under-floor heated shower and toilet block fitted out like a luxury hotel. All amenities come with complimentary organic toiletries.

Knepp

Knepp

The benefit of considering our impact on this environment spreads out like ripples on a pond, increasing biodiversity right across the spectrum of wild animals and plants. Guided safaris can be taken as the site is so big, or you can walk along the well marked footpaths and enjoy the quiet, well quiet as without the sound of man, no machinery can be heard and your horizon is so limited by the billowing flowing hedgerows and scrub with only birdsong and buzzing insects filling the air until an aeroplane from Gatwick flies over to spoil the illusion that it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere. 

Knepp

Knepp

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust staff had the joy of experiencing Knepp in the height of Spring this year in May, the aim being that we would be inspired by the work being undertaken there. Inspired I was and slightly bemused because Knepp shows us that in our arrogance and superiority, we think we have tamed nature, controlled it, when we have not – we have made it a shadow of its former self. Knepp shows that farming with nature rather than against it works and it works really well. Nature can do this so much better than we can.

knepp

knepp

The owner of Knepp has written a book on the farm, Wilding – the return of nature to a British farm and this is exactly what Knepp is, letting nature return and work alongside us. There's a paragraph in the book that has really stuck with me, poignant even, regarding our perception of what our countryside should be and how it should be managed referred to a 'shifting baseline syndrome'.  The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystem they encountered in their childhood as normal. A discussion between father and son “You don't know what you're talking about” one old boy berated his son – a baby during the war – who insisted what they were seeing at Knepp was 'unnatural'. “This is how the countryside always used to look”

Knepp

Knepp

We should not view our farming countryside as beautiful and full of wildlife because it is not. It’s a hollow shadow of its former self, if we only took the time to look hard enough and consider what was there before and not there now. Only then can we truly appreciate what we have lost.

If we want to see our countryside, our farmland rich in nature's bounty and be proud of our small islands astonishing variety, we should all be allowing and encouraging the return of nature. She doesn't need much help, only us doing less...We need more Knepps!

Highland cattle at Woodside Farm, Gavin Henderson

Highland cattle at Woodside Farm, Gavin Henderson