On Saturday we started our rewilding journey with a visit to the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex (England). We took some friends along and were guided around by Penny Green, the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Ranger.
The project was formerly a large dairy and arable farm. The current owner, Charlie, got to know Ted Green and Jill Butler (ancient tree gurus at the Woodland Trust) and bravely decided to risk everything by turning his back on 100 years of traditional farming by his family and embrace a new concept – low intervention farming using the animals themselves to manage the land.
Penny gave us a fascinating presentation on the history of the estate, and how the rewilding project came about. We then went out in a Pinzgauer (a six-wheel drive troop carrier), which apparently is the only thing that can reliably handle the Sussex clay in the winter!
Over 60 km of fencing was removed before the start of the project and we drove through the former fields, hopping out near an oak tree that occasionally (but not today sadly) contains a little owl. To compensate for the missing owl, Penny pointed out a rare bracket fungus (Phellinus robustus) growing high up in the crown of the tree. I guess one of the advantages of fungi as a subject is that they don’t move around too much!
Shortly after this we saw two red kites (Milvus milvus) circling overhead, a nice reminder that this species is making a good comeback in England after over a century of absence.
The changes that are happening on the estate were clear to see from the start. The fields that once supported a monoculture are developing a new flora. Rootling for bulbs and other sub-surface goodies by Tamworth pigs (specially selected for the purpose) overturns the soil and creates habitat for invertebrates and wildflowers. Low-intensity grazing by longhorn cattle, fallow and roe deer keeps areas of grass open, but the dog-rose, blackthorn and brambles are providing protection for young oak trees. The thorns are no match for the exmoor ponies however, who seem to enjoy the challenge! Sallow (Salix caprea and Salix cinerea) is becoming established, and is used by the longhorn cattle as lunch and rubbing posts.
We made our way to a tree platform that had been constructed in the spreading branches of a beautiful old oak tree that survived the intensive farming days. From the platform we got a good look across the emerging landscape, and a glimpse of a Tamworth pig – a big orangey-brown shape snuffling through the undergrowth.
The pattern that was emerging was clearer from the tree platform. Penny explained that once the oak trees become established and immune to the effects of browsing, they will form the basis of an open, wooded habitat. Careful stock management is intended to ensure the fields do not revert to plain but will not turn into dense woodland – browsing is expected to maintain meadow areas. No one is really sure though – the big experiment is to try to replace some of the missing ecosystem-shaping species, and then see what happens.
As it is unlikely that large predators will be introduced (it was calculated that the area is only big enough to support one and a half lynx), culling is used to manage herbivore populations. Licensed hunting of deer stags is also an important revenue source. All the meat is sold for consumption and the revenue is used to conduct necessary maintenance. The deer stalking is used to supplement the project’s finances; there is no intention to turn this into a deer stalking estate!
The hedges and field margins are becoming taller, deeper and denser, creating habitat for birds, small mammals and reptiles. Penny told us that beneficiaries from these changes include nightingales (Knepp now supports 2% of the UK’s wild breeding population), turtle doves and cuckoos. Turtle dove numbers in the UK decreased by 96% between 1970 and 2012 and were identified in 2010 as the bird species most likely to be extinct in the UK by 2020. At least four territories were identified at Knepp during 2014, up from an average of two in previous years. This is a drop in the ocean in terms of the UK-wide population crash, but it is very encouraging to see the species appearing to increase in number within the project area.
The stunning purple emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) is another big winner at Knepp. It was first noticed breeding at the project in 2009, and by 2013 was considered to host the second strongest population in the country. This species is traditionally associated with mature mixed woodland, but Knepp is changing the received wisdom on this. The males display over large oak trees, and the females lay their eggs on sallow. It seems that the suddenly increased availability of sallow is responsible for the spectacular population increase at Knepp, and that the Purple Emperor could become much more widespread in the southeast if the availability of food plants were increased. We didn’t see any on our trip as the adults emerge in early July, but I recommend going on a summer safari!
After another stint in the Pinzgauer we jumped out to investigate some sheets of corrugated iron that had been put down to provide winter shelter for reptiles. Under the first sheet we saw two grass snakes curled up together. They hung around and let us get a good look at them before Penny covered them back up.
After this we headed back to the dining / conference building for delicious lunch, including home-grown salad, pork pie and ham followed by chocolate brownies and coffee. Mmmmmm!
After lunch we went out again – into the northern area of the farm this time. We saw some long-horned cattle hanging out alongside red deer.
This was also our opportunity to check out the river. At the start of the project the existing canalised river was re-routed into a newly dug, meandering channel along the bottom of the valley, and then left to evolve on its own. Recently, in an attempt to replicate the work of beavers (which Knepp have yet to acquire), volunteers have placed trunks and branches in the river to reduce flow and allow siltation. The meanders and the woody debris placed in the channels will reduce the speed of the flow, allow local flooding, and help prevent uncontrolled flooding downstream.
After checking out the river it was time to head back to base. On the way we spotted a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) gliding over a nearby wood. I’ll take the long camera lens next time!
We had a brilliant time at Knepp. Penny really knew her stuff, and it was great to learn that this type of work is going on in the UK. When Knepp was used for intensive agriculture, it was losing money despite government subsidies. Part of the revenue from the project today is still from subsidies (sustainability subsidies instead of production subsidies), as well as meat production, letting out the farm buildings to local businesses, and eco-tourism. The advantages of converting to rewilding are that there are now no pesticides applied to the land, local employment has actually increased, and the results for wildlife (and visitors) speak for themselves.
We would thoroughly recommend a visit to Knepp. We went right at the start of the season, and there was cool stuff to see. It would be amazing to go back in summer to see it in full bloom.
To organise a visit to Knepp or check out their blog…
If you want to look at survey data that has been gathered since the start of the project, check here…