Moonlit melody - the resurgent nightingales of Knepp

| 7th May 2015
A nightingale in full song. Photo: courtesy of David Plummer Images.
A nightingale in full song. Photo: courtesy of David Plummer Images.
At the inspiring new 3,500 acre 'wildland' of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, the nightingale is making itself at home amid the thorny thickets, writes Hazel Sillver. That's proof to any that need it that the bird's extinction is far from inevitable - if only we can muster the will to save it! It also offers a wonderful opportunity to hear its magical song ...
Their song, so harmonious to our ears, is a cry of flirtation to any female birds that may be flying in from Africa - if his warbling is up to scratch, she may flutter down and nest with him.

I'm standing high in the canopy of an old oak, atop a tree platform. It is a clear spring night and moonlight is falling through the branches onto the faces of the people around me.

We stand silent, waiting, waiting. The breeze moves through the leaves with a rustle. Eventually, we are rewarded for our patience. The distinctive, melodic song of the nightingale cuts through the air.

His quick succession of notes is varied and rich: first a high peel, then a sonorous warble, next a low rasp. Soon another bird begins to sing in the scrub of hawthorn and bramble close by, then another, and another.

I have lived in Sussex for almost ten years, but can count on one hand the amount of times I have heard a nightingale. Yet here I am in the Knepp Estate near Horsham in West Sussex, hearing four at once!

A new 'wilderness' in the heart of Sussex

Knepp is the largest 're-wilding' project in the UK and very inspiring it is too. Once intensively farmed, the 3,500 acres here have been allowed to regenerate over the past 14 years, with minimal human intervention.

Inspired by the theories of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, Knepp's owner Charlie Burrell has turned this land wild again, using grazing animals, such as pigs, long-horned cattle and deer. The result is a fascinating landscape of grassland and scrub, which has attracted a wealth of rare wildlife, including nightingales. Knepp currently plays host to 2% of the nightingales that fly annually from Africa to breed in the UK.

Why these fascinating birds travel so far is a mystery, but it's thought that in times gone by, they flew north to the once lush green pastures and wetlands of North Africa, before these turned into the scorched sands of the Sahara. When the desert formed, the birds simply kept flying north ... as far as leafy green Sussex!

The male birds arrive first and settle in, building a nest. This will be hidden in low scrub, such as the knitted mesh of hawthorn, bramble, sallow and dog rose at Knepp. Then they will begin to sing. Their song, so harmonious to our ears, is a cry of flirtation to any female birds that may be flying in from Africa - if his warbling is up to scratch, she may flutter down and nest with him.

Although nightingales are associated with evensong, in fact they chirp away all day, pause at dusk, and then begin to sing again. The amount of time they rest for at dusk varies and tonight they made the other bird lovers and myself wait until 10:30pm. But it is worth it. When those enchanting notes resound through the moonlit air, everything seems well with the world.

A rare cornucopia of native wildlife

Knepp are now opening their gates to the public for a series of Wildland Safaris. Over the next few weeks, they are offering the Nightingale Safari, which I was lucky enough to attend. This includes a tour of the beautiful and ecologically important Knepp Re-wilding Project, a delicious supper and the chance to listen to the nightingales.

Because of a loss of habitat, the nightingale has become increasingly rare in the UK over the past few decades. Thankfully, the dense, thorny scrub they like to build their nests in is found in abundance here.

The newly 'wilded' land at Knepp is attracting other rare birds, such as turtle doves and ravens, as well as other fascinating wildlife, such as the Purple Emperor butterfly, which breeds here en masse in July after a colourful mating display.

There are many opportunities to visit and enjoy this natural abundance (see below). But if you have time this spring, don't miss the nightingales.

Come nightfall, when all the other birds fall silent (with the exception of the owls), the sound of this little bird singing beneath the stars is magic.



Hazel Sillver is a freelance journalist and long-standing contributor to The Ecologist's 'Green Living' strand. Email:

Nightingale safaris at Knepp: the next Nightingale Safaris at Knepp will run on the 7, 9, 16 and 21 May, 7.30-9.30pm, £25 per person. See also a list of nightingale events around the UK.

Other wildlife events at Knepp: The safaris on offer at Knepp over the summer include Bee Safaris, Wildflower Safaris, Bat and Moth Safaris and Purple Emperor butterfly Safaris, and range from half-day visits to overnight stays in one of the yurts, bell tents or shepherd's huts.

Petition: 'BBC, Please bring the magic of Nightingale song to people all over Britain this May, by broadcasting it live on local and national radio and TV!'

Also on The Ecologist: 'Don't let our nightingales go quietly!'.