Fera paid a visit to Knepp Wildland in West Sussex this August to see the wilderness they have created on the 3,500 acre estate. A place of divisive opinions, before 2001 Knepp was a loss-making intensive farm but that all changed when they sold off their machinery, stopped any farming, blocked up drainage ditches and ripped out internal fences to let the land return to nature. After vegetation started returning to the land, and on the advice of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, Knepp then reintroduced a selection of herbivores. Each species was chosen to mimic the grazing activities of extinct free roaming animals of the past. This meant Tamworth pigs were brought in to replace wild boar, wild Exmoor ponies replaced tarpan, Longhorn cattle were proxies for aurochs and finally Red and Fallow deer were introduced.
The key to Knepp is this interaction between the vegetation and lightly stocked herbivores. Each species has its own methods of grazing and the land has found a balance between vegetation succession and the animals preventing the scrub and flora from fully taking over the landscape. And it is not only the animals' different grazing which affects the land, each provides other physical disturbances. When an animal tramples the ground, or a pig roots up a patch of grass, a tree is rubbed against or de-barked, a seed is dispersed through feces, this all gives rise to a complex swathe of habitats. This is Knepp’s attempt at restoring the natural process that would occur without human intervention and while the phrase ‘rewilding’ conjures up an image of zero human intervention, Knepp is fully aware they are not operating on a scale that would allow for no human touch. There are no predators introduced, and agricultural laws mean a certain level of care is bestowed upon the animals (they also sell their livestock as a wild meat range to help sustain correct numbers), but the aim here is minimal intervention to allow wildlife to flourish as much as it can and flourish it does.
We were shown around the Southern Block, a 1,100 acre area, by Neil Hulme, a butterfly aficionado, and we were immediately struck by how much the landscape felt like the bush you find in Africa. Fields which had previously been pastoral now had scrub growing up, some trimmed by grazing animals and other hawthorns and blackthorn growing with wild freedom. A young oak tree survives being grazed by growing up through a pile of protective brambles. The grass is no longer a monoculture but now a mosaic of different species. A fallow deer shoots past and disappears into the maze of scrub. It is a fascinating pocket of wilderness in an otherwise densely populated county. Sure, the illusion is ruined when you come across another group of walkers or a boundary fence but it is nonetheless an impressive sight. Wildlife clearly loves it, our guide Neil listed off numbers of endangered species that now prosper at Knepp and while it was not the best time of year to visit to see birdlife, one cannot help believe you are hearing more birdsong than ever before.
The fields which had been arable are even more striking. After the last harvest, Knepp left the ground bare which meant it was an open invitation for travelling seeds to land and germinate on. This has resulted in some of these fields becoming forests of tall sallow trees after their pussy willow landed on the bare fields. Sallow, due its fast colonisation, is not normally tolerated in managed English countryside but after large areas of it grew at Knepp a fascinating discovery was unearthed. The Purple Emperor, perhaps the most regal of Britain’s butterflies, was always considered a woodland species, but good numbers of them were in fact attracted to Knepp because of this sallow where the female would lay its egg on the leaves. It is discoveries like these, ones that only happen thanks to the great experimental laboratory of minimal intervention at Knepp, that can now inform wider conservation in Britain.
Yet Knepp does draw negative attention for their efforts. There is a fear that this goes against what the British countryside should be used for and how it should look, that it impinges on food production. It is important to understand that they are not suggesting that the entire farmland of the UK should be turned over to nature. They represent an example of what can be done with land not suited to profitable agriculture (Neil also pointed out that there are rare habitats that only survive thanks to human intervention, such as the species rich semi-natural chalk grasslands of the South Downs). This is land that they have transformed into a haven for wildlife that should be commended for the species it helps flourish (Read more on Knepp's wildlife successes here.) The figures on Britain’s flora and fauna are often not an easy swallow. A classic example is the Turtle Dove, who's numbers halved between 2013 and 2017 but at Knepp they have strong numbers, one of the reasons being the large numbers of weeds on the land provide a good source of seeds for the bird, where as elsewhere these weeds would be controlled. One only has to peek into the figures of extensive research being done at Knepp to see how well the wild is doing there. Even dung beetles, a species one does not think of in the UK, thrive at Knepp thanks to the lack of antibiotics and treatments given to the animals. In one cowpat alone, 23 species of dung beetle were found.
Before visiting, there is certainly a necessary reconditioning of what one sees as the English countryside. We are all so used to the neat hedgerows and green fields that it can be a difficult shock to see weeds and scrub growing up unmanaged. But this is not traditional countryside anymore, nor is it trying to be, Knepp is allowing nature to take over. We entered one field to see a sea of ragwort, and despite being an attractive yellow flower, one cannot help but recoil. We have been so conditioned to detest the plant (if it is dried, it can be poisonous to horse and cattle). Neil informed us that while this year the ragwort was prevalent, nature normally soon found a way to balance it out. It happened with creeping thistle that took over large areas before returning to normal levels. And for now, the animals at Knepp just choose to ignore the yellow plant, food is in much abundance elsewhere so there is no risk of harm within Knepp.
Knepp Wildland is a slice of the wild, managed wild but still wild, in the south of England that has become a haven for wildlife, many species which are rapidly in decline. While rewilding can be a misused buzzword, the wilding they have done at Knepp over the last twenty years has created an environment that has allowed nature to flourish and restore itself and for that reason it should be applauded.
For more information on Knepp, visit their website.
Cover photo by Anthony Cullen, all other photography by Fera.