The Wild Heart Of West Sussex
Twenty years ago Isabella Tree and Sir Charlie Burrell threw up their hands up in despair at their 3,500 acre farm’s lack of profitability, no matter how much hard work and innovation they sunk into it.
After selling all their farm machinery, they were in limbo until they became inspired by various rewilding projects that were taking place, especially in Holland.
Could they do the same at Knepp? Give over all their agricultural land, which had been intensively farmed in the family for centuries, to natural processes? Internal fences came down and there began a brave experiment in UK conservation that has had startling results over the decades.
I meet the ebullient Penny Green, ecologist for the Knepp estate, on site. She has been working here for over five years and is so enthusiastic about the project that she even turns up on her weekends to catch and ring birds’ legs for research purposes.
The first thing I share with her is my impression of Knepp: it’s like taking off a very tight shoe. Originally from Australia, I have always longed for more wilderness and had come to the conclusion that England was a conquered and controlled land, with every inch ploughed and fenced off.
“Yes!” exclaims Penny, “on the nature safari tours we run, it is the older generation that recognises in this unmanaged landscape something from their childhood, where the countryside was less constricted. It is the generation after them that sometimes thinks what we are doing is untidy!”
She explains the theory that underpins Knepp. Rather than traditional conservation where bits of the landscape are managed to protect a single species, the rewilding at Knepp is led by the natural processes of large herbivores- old English Cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, red and fallow deer – and involves allowing a whole ecosystem to flourish on its own terms. And it not just letting trees grow up and create a woodland. Research has shown that the original landscape of the UK was much more of a mixed bag, of groves of trees, emerging scrub, wetlands and meadows. All the ancient strains of deer, horses, pigs and long horn cattle used to drive this wood pastruelandscape- and ecologists are just realising how much more diverse in flora and fauna this landscape is compared to a closed canopy woodland. Think Africa in Horsham.
Allowing nature to be its own conductor has had many surprising results.
“We introduced Tamworth pigs here quite early on and their action of digging up the ground encouraged thistles to grow. We were nervous about these weeds until thousands of Painted Lady butterflies descended on the estate to feed on the nectar.”
They are countless stories like this at Knepp which has led to the top ecologists in the UK to descend here for various studies. Time and again the estate proves that it is becoming home to a number of endangered species, like rare bats, Turtle Doves and Purple Emperor butterflies- not from trying to have specific individual species targets, but by creating a space for nature to do what it does best and thereby creating an inviting home.
“Recently we had 30,000 visitors to catch a glimpse of our new resident Stork population!”
Penny is passionate about scrub. “ We have been taught to think scrub as messy. What we are realising here is that scrub is the ideal environment for a host of small mammals, reptiles, insects and birds, because of its rich variety of food and the protection it offers from predators. The Nightingale, generally associated with coppiced woodland, is proving itself to be a scrubland bird. Some of the species that we generally associate with particular habitats aren’t necessary in their optimum habitat: it turns out to be the only place they had left to go.
“We are creating a kaleidoscopic habitat that is constantly changing with surprising interconnections. The herbivores all have different ways of feeding which means that they create a rich mosaic of vegetation structures providing a dynamic environment. Turtle Doves feed on the new weed seeds that grow in the wake of our Tamworth pigs, willow grows in this disturbed ground which then becomes the food source of the Purple Emperor butterfly caterpillar.”
What about the herbivores taking over?
Penny admits that in this ecosystem they have to be the wolf, and keep the animal numbers in check by culling them. “ We sell the meat through the Knepp Wild Range Meat website e=which is an important income stream.
Penny is infectious with the hope that this project brings. “ There are 40 farms in the Upper Adur region that have now come together to work with how they can restore the soil health, learn about natural flood management and increase wildlife connectivity for wildlife across the landscape. In fact there are 24 now rewinding projects, each over 1000 acres, happening across the UK. There is a growing movement to compliment the wonderful nature reserves we already have, with both large landowners and smallholders alike contributing.And there is so much unproductive land that can be converted in England”
She waves her arms describing “billowing hedgerows” released from their straightjackets and it strikes me that as a society we are fixed on personal denial being what we can do for the environment- less travel, less plastic, less meat- but here is a place where one can allow nature to heal itself and give us joy in surprising ways, where we can encourage the repair of the land without needing to resort to new technologies, where the solution is a positive one.
And the future?
Penny talks about a new regenerative agriculture project starting up on some fallow land and beavers! “Yes we are bringing them back- they are a keystone species for flood and drought mitigation with huge benefits for biodiversity and played an important role in shaping the ancient British landscape.”
Knepp is a welcoming place- you can camp, go on safaris with trained ecologists or just turn up and walk along the 16 miles of tracks. They even have a little ice cream and coffee caravan waiting for you at the end of your journey into the wilds.
What to do in your garden in November
Harvest the last of your tomatoes as the frosts can get them. even if they are green they will ripen in a bowl.
Lift your Dahlias and store them in a dry, dark place (some people leave them in the soil over Winter but this is a risk)
If your Roses are particularly tall you can prune them back to reduce the rock to their roots a strong Winter wind can wreck on them.
Put bubble wrap around any precious tropical trees like Bananas or Tree Ferns if frosts are immanent.
Still seriously think about planting Perennial and trees. Trees can be bought as bare root specimens which means they will be cheaper plus the plants will have five moths to establish without any real need of watering before Spring arrives.
Where to visit in November?
Obviously – Knepp! walks vary from an hour to 4 hours and you will need to bring your own refreshments as there is only a little shop at the beginning of the walks.
A £5 donation is suggested at the car park
New Barn Farm,, Swallows Lane,, Dial Post,, Horsham RH13 8NN
Fancy choosing your own Xmas tree? Wilderness Woods offers you the chance to select your tree from their plantation, put a ribbon around it, then come back in December and chop it down.