Second nature: an adventure into rewilding

Owl on a branch
Knepp Castle Estate
Regenerating scrub and wood pasture produces astonishing ecosystem recovery – seeds of hope from this weekend’s Tree Conference.

Knepp is a signal reminder of our need to embrace messy, exuberant scrubland once again, to allow it space in the landscape – and in our hearts.  

Standing on the southern edge of our 3,500-acre rewilding project on a June day, on the brow of one of Knepp Estate’s few elevations, one would be forgiven for imagining oneself gazing on African savannah.

This does not look like West Sussex – or anywhere else in England, come to that. The rough grassland, a riot of anthills, is punctuated by fists of thorny scrub. Hedgerows have billowed out into swathes of unruly brush. Weaving between them, a filigree of dusty trails signals the wanderings of large herds of ungulates.

The air is thick with birdsong, many of them African in origin – swallows, house martins, swifts, lesser whitethroats, chiffchaffs, willow warblers, reed warblers, garden warblers, Cetti’s warblers. You can hear cuckoos, often several at once and, at night, competitive clusters of  nightingales send thrilling, unsettling arias into the darkness, interrupted by the occasional nightjar. This is perhaps the only place in the UK where numbers of turtle doves are rising.

Rare species

There is a wildness here, an untrammelled exuberance, pulsing with life, that is so unfamiliar, so essentially un-British, that visitors naturally seek comparisons with foreign parts – the scrublands of the Serengeti, or the Deccan in India, perhaps.

They expect you to turn a corner and see a herd of buffalo or a leopard up a tree. It feels as though anything could happen here, and sometimes it does.

The number of visitations from extremely rare species is rising – last year, a Montagu’s harrier and a black stork flew over, checking us out, a black tern settled on the lake, peregrine falcons nested in a Scots pine for the second time and, in the summer, a red-backed shrike struck up his territory on a hawthorn, impalingemperor dragonflies. 

Knepp is a signal reminder of our need to embrace messy, exuberant scrubland once again, to allow it space in the landscape – and in our hearts.  

In February this year, a pair of great white egrets paced the winter water-meadows and, in March, a black redstart appeared in the park. It is almost impossible to remember the time, only fifteen years or so ago, when this landscape was fields of maize, barley, wheat, as far as the eye could see, a  desert in terms of biodiversity.

Agri-chemical assault

We took the decision to come out of in-hand farming in 2000. For decades the farm – mixed arable and dairy - had run at a loss but in the 1990s  those losses became unsustainable. Categorised as grade 4, or grade 3 at best, our land has never lent itself to modern intensive production.

We are hampered by poor drainage, small, hedged fields and our heavy soil – 300 metres of Low Weald clay over a bedrock of limestone. It is like concrete in summer, and, in winter, unfathomable porridge, preventing any access to the land by heavy machinery after the first rains of autumn.

The idea to rewild came off the back of the restoration of the nineteenth-century Repton park around the house. Ploughed up in World War Two as part of Britain’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, the land had been in constant production ever since.

In 2001, however, we received funding from the Country Stewardship Scheme to restore the park, providing breathing space for, among other things, veteran oaks suffering from agri-chemical assault.

Returning these 140 hectares to permanent pasture, re-seeding with native Low Weald flowers and grasses, and introducing fallow deer as grazers, was a revelation.

Dynamic processes

The following summer we walked knee-deep through oxeye daisies, bird’s-foot trefoil, ragged robin, knapweed, red clover, ladies’ bedstraw, crested dog’s tail and sweet vernal grass, kicking up clouds of butterflies, our ears thrumming with the sound of bumble bees, hoverflies and grasshoppers – something we hadn’t even known we’d been missing.

The land itself seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. For us, it was the psychological breakthrough that allowed us to look at the Estate with fresh eyes, to dare to break with our farming tradition. It showed us the potential of working with the land, rather than constantly battling against it.

Our park restoration coincided with the publication, in 2000, of the ground-breaking publication Grazing Ecology and Forest History by the visionary Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, and a visit to his naturalistic grazing project, the Oostvaardersplassen in Holland, expanded our horizons exponentially.

We realised we had the potential to do something much wilder and more exciting than a conventional park restoration in other areas of the Estate.

By introducing a suite of other herbivores - Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and old English longhorn cattle – in addition to red deer  and fallow deer, and allowing them free-rein to trample, rootle, wallow, puddle, ring-bark, graze, browse and dung where they liked, we could kick-start dynamic natural processes on our land; we could use them to prevent the succession of species-poor closed canopy woods on our ex-arable fields, creating something much more interesting and diverse instead.

Financial constraints

In effect, they would be acting as proxies of the tarpan, wild boar and aurochs – some of the big-hitting megafauna that once roamed our countryside disturbing the soil and battling with vegetation succession, transferring seeds and nutrients across the landscape, driving habitat complexity.

In 2003, we managed to secure funding from Countryside Stewardship to roll a park restoration across just over half of the land, enabling us to reseed with a mix of native grasses, take up internal fencing and gates, ring-fence boundaries and release free-roaming animals to graze and disturb. 

But there was no such funding forthcoming for the rest of the Estate, known as the Southern Block – an area of 1,100 acres (450 hectares).

At a loss as to what to do, and with contract farming actually costing us money,  we had no alternative but to step back and leave the land to its own devices. We had begun taking the lowest yielding fields out of production in 2001, and continued in increments over the following five years.

Unable to pay for a boundary fence and with, therefore, no immediate prospect of introducing herbivores here, we decided to avoid the cost of re-seeding with a native grass mix. We simply left the fields as they were after the last harvest of maize, wheat, barley or whatever crop they happened to be growing.

Headline successes 

It was an uneasy and discomforting hiatus – it felt like we were literally turning our backs on the land, pressing pause on our naturalistic grazing experiment - but, ironically, it was rocket-fuel for rewilding. 

Our haphazard process of letting the land go, combined with no re-seeding of grass and a delay in introducing the heavy-hitting herbivores generated opportunities for wildlife that were far more exciting than anything we were doing elsewhere.

It wasn’t until 2009 that we received Higher Level Stewardship funding for the whole project, enabling us – at last - to introduce grazing animals into this final area in 2010. By then, thorny scrub had begun to take off here, providing a nursery for jay-planted oak saplings and the spontaneous germination of crab apples and wild service, as well as protective cover for invertebrates, birds and small mammals, and a cornucopia of berries for over-wintering birds.

Eruptions of sallow (hybrid willow) germinating in the damp, open soil, has given rise to the largest colony of purple emperor butterflies in the UK.

By the time free-roaming animals were introduced,plenty of browsing as well as grazing was available to them, providing a richer food supply. The ensuing battle between animal disturbance and vegetation succession has increased habitat complexity even further. This is now by far the wildest area of the rewilding project and source of most of our headline wildlife successes – the part that looks like Africa.

Valuable scrubland

It is also the area that has, understandably, proved most challenging for our neighbours. For many, the natural landscape of Southern England is a patchwork of neatly hedged fields and ditches, small copses and bare, rolling Downland. It is an idyll that has become lodged in our subconscious, invested with nostalgia, an image considered to be balanced and harmonious.

Scrubland does not feature anywhere in this idealised country. Demonised by farmers, landowners and gardeners alike it is considered ‘wasteland’ – messy, worthless, a waste of space, a sign of neglect or mismanagement. 

But it was not always so, as Knepp’s own field names suggest. Benton’s Gorse, Stub Mead, Faggot Stack Plat, Bramble Field, Broom Field, Cooper Reeds, Broomers Corner and numerous Furzefields (‘furze’ is an old Sussex name for gorse) point to a time when scrub was valued for myriad uses – for everything from tool handles  and basketry, animal fodder and, fuel, dyes, medicines and gunpowder, hurdles and charcoal. 

Time was – and not so long ago – when scrub was cherished. But almost all the purposes for which it was once used are now satisfied by plastic and mass-produced alternatives. Chainsaws and mechanised diggers have enabled us to eradicate it wherever it dares to appear.

One of the richest habitats for nature is now deemed ‘unnatural’. Even conservationists, bent on keeping areas designated for nature in stasis for the preservation of targeted species, often find the morphing, unpredictable, impenetrable character of scrubland hard to countenance. Fortunes are spent every year on its eradication, with scrub-bashing a staple activity of conservation volunteers.

Optimistic future

But the accidental reappearance of scrub at Knepp, and the astonishing resurgence of wildlife it has encouraged, in such a short space of time, shows extraordinary potential – and not just for the recovery of rare and declining species. The implications underlying the project are enormous.

Knepp shows how rewilding the land leads to other forms of provision vital for the public good – ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, water storage, air purification, ethical meat production, human health and recreation. It even demonstrates an alternative, low-cost, natural way of re-establishing woodland – without the need for carbon-intensive polypropylene cylinders, tanalized wooden stakes and high maintenance planting by human hand. 

But perhaps most important of all and, inevitably, connected to all the above, it addresses one of the most pressing concerns facing farming today – soil degradation.

Centuries of relentlessly ploughing without regard for soil structure, of applying chemicals to the land and destroying soil biota, have led to catastrophic levels of soil erosion. According to the National Farmers’ Union we have fewer than a hundred harvests left in the country before we have no topsoil left in which to plant crops.

At Knepp, the appearance of fruiting fungi such as Boletus mendax (a mycorrhizal mushroom associated with old oaks), and milkcaps and fly agaric in our sallow scrub, as well as common spotted, southern marsh and early purple orchids (plants that depend on subterranean mycorrhizal fungi) in our former arable fields, is a clear indication that our soils are reviving.

Soil restoration

In 2013 a study by Imperial College London found an exponential rise in the abundance and variety of earthworms compared with neighbouring farmland with the same soils and under the same conventional agriculture as previously at Knepp. In total, we have now found 19 species of earthworm – a diversity that, according to soil scientists, is extraordinarily high.  

So Knepp points the way to a low-cost system of soil restoration – a model that could be rolled out across marginal land likely to fall out of agriculture in the post-Brexit shake-up of farming subsidies, and that may prove vital even for Grade 1 agricultural land.

Scale, of course, is key in order to allow process-led systems to function but already we are seeing ‘farm clusters’ – groups of small farms – clubbing together to achieve landscape-scale restoration together. 

Knepp shows how rewilding could, if we wish, bring about incalculable public benefits. But if we are to embrace it we need to re-educate our sensibilities. Knepp is a signal reminder of our need to embrace messy, exuberant scrubland once again, to allow it space in the landscape – and in our hearts.  

This Author 

Isabella Tree is an award-winning journalist and author of Wilding: the Return of Nature to a British Farm (2018). She will be giving a talk at the Tree Conference in Frome this Sunday, 21 October.