The Knepp Estate in Sussex is becoming one of the largest and most prosperous rewilding projects in Britain.
The 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex, about 40 miles south of London, was suffering from poor yields from conventional farming when Charlie Burrell finished agriculture school in the 1990s, after inheriting the Knepp Estate when he was just 21 years old.
He soon came to the realization that his land would never be a success if he persevered with conventional agriculture, so he devised a radical alternative: rewilding. Twenty years later, the Knepp Estate has become one of the largest and most prosperous rewilding projects in the country.
“Instead of conserving with specific species in mind where you’re focusing on keeping a habitat, locking it down as it is, so that that preserves the numbers of certain species, what we’ve done here is just taken our hands off the steering wheel and just stood back and let nature take over,” explains (the suitably) named Isabella Tree, Charlie's wife.
Rewilding involves returning an area of land to its natural state. In other words, completely letting go.
A wild landscape should have wild animals, so the first step for Isabella and Charlie was to reintroduce large mammals to the Estate, including several species of deer, longhorn cattle, Tamworth hogs, and Exmoor ponies. The result of introducing these animals on the environment creates a unique reaction from the land. As the Knepp Rewilding Project website says: “Disturbance from grazing, browsing, rootling, rubbing and trampling, provides a check on scrub; and the battle between these two processes - animal disturbance vs vegetation succession - creates all sorts of vegetation structures which contribute to a dynamic, ever-shifting mosaic of valuable habitats."
The movement of large herbivores is key to ecosystem health, as their dispersion of seeds and nutrient-rich dung ensures that trace elements of key nutrients are scattered randomly, leading to the establishment of dynamic ecosystems. While setting all the normal wild pieces on the wilderness board and letting them do their thing may sound like complete madness, it's been fabulously successful.
Knepp is now home to nearly all English megafauna, as well as the rarest mammal in Europe, the barbastelle bat. Rare birds such as turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, white storks, and all five species of owls found in Great Britain now also inhabit the grounds, while one summer the Butterfly Conservatory counted 87 male purple emperor butterflies, an exceptional number for anywhere in England.
The Adur River is at the heart of the Estate and, by removing weirs and filling in agricultural drainage canals, was restored to its natural state in 2011. The revitalised wetlands surrounding the river’s natural meandering path now play host to wading birds, amphibians, water insects, sea trout, and other fish, and important endangered wetland plants like the black poplar.
For Charlie and Isabella, their monetary problems disappeared like their once-fallow fields, and along with controlling the herbivore population with free-range organic wild meat, the estate offers camping and “glamping” in a shepherd’s hut, nomad’s yurt, and tree houses. They also offer safari tours of the grounds, fishing, photography workshops, and rewilding courses.