Transitional, innovative, exciting, restorative, unique, both agriculturally and economically sensical and questionable concurrently and all in all, a little bit mad! The rewilding project at the Knepp Castle Estate in Sussex, spearheaded by estate owner Charlie Burrell and his superb team, is all of these things and more. My visit yesterday, the first time I had been down to Knepp despite having heard of this fascinating project long ago, was a true adventure in imagination and a lesson in rewilding landscapes and human minds.
The visit came about for a number of reasons. The project at Knepp is highly innovative and has therefore attracted people from numerous backgrounds since its early days. Conservationists, academics and landowners, are quite understandably fascinated by the subtle changes in the landscape and critically, the potential for replicating the project elsewhere. I have been intrigued by Knepp for a while, both with my ecological/conservationist/rewilding interest hat on and my ‘making land pay its way’ agricultural/land management hat. I wanted to see for myself how Knepp had been transformed from a 3500 acre traditional estate with agriculture and forestry at its heart to the restorative environmental project it identifies as today. Dad and I are contemplating alternative futures for our family’s farmland in Essex, keeping an open mind, and the Knepp visit was part of this process. Our business faces an uncertain future as a result of our geography as well as economic, political and climatic instability. Conventional farming in our situation, as a relatively small and isolated farm split across two units and with much of the land at or below sea level, is difficult to uphold economically at the best of times in terms of generating a resilient and sustainable business structure. However, our land lies in a beautiful and biodiverse area. There is a strong tourism draw locally. We also already have significant amounts of the business revolving around environmental stewardship and are currently contemplating the future of this aspect of land management. Keeping an open mind means looking to alternatives, sometimes extreme alternatives in the case of Knepp and we wanted to see how one can balance tourism and environment whilst remaining food producers. Knepp seems to be achieving this.
For decades, agriculture, in the form of dairy and arable farming, were the mainstay for economic activity and employment at Knepp. Over a cup of tea before we went out to explore the estate, Charlie described to us all (for we were joined by a wonderful family from Cornwall who, like us, were at Knepp to learn about the possibilities of replicating its essence in the south west) how continuation of the status quo had simply not been an option in the early 2000s. In September 2000 the estate sold its 3 dairy herds and the stockmen were made redundant. The arable enterprise which Charlie had managed in hand for several years had also became uneconomical and operations were contracted out. Nonetheless, after a few years it became clear that even this low management input was not working economically. As an ex-mixed dairy/arable farm my own family have gone through nearly the exact experience and it is a troubling one, both in terms of the experience itself but also contemplating a different future. Charlie explained how Knepp had needed to take bold steps in an alternative direction to make the land pay in the modern world but also to restore the land ecologically. Hence, rewilding was born.
It was clear when we walked out on Charlie’s fields that the water table was very near the surface and his soils, in essence very heavy, sticky clay, probably grade 4 soils, were never suitable for productive arable farming. Our low lying reclaimed marshland at the Naze is similar and we almost instantly saw possibilities for an area of land that we have always struggled to make pay when managing through a conventional mindset. I should say that Knepp is quite a large estate (as I mentioned before, 3500 acres), over triple the size of our land in Essex, even including land outside of the sea wall, and although all situated in the ‘Low Weald‘ of Sussex (the ‘High Weald’ has a sandstone as opposed to clay base) there remains great diversity in terms of the landscape on the holding and the way each area is managed. Broadly the project is divided into three areas, the southern part, the parkland around the castle itself, and the northern part. We visited each but spent most of our time in the southern section, learning first hand from Charlie how he had gone about transforming the landscape and how it continues to develop.
The animals on the estate are the key actors of change within the landscape. Tamworth pigs, Longhorn cattle, Fallow and Roe deer and Exmoor ponies (sadly we didn’t see any of the latter yesterday) are all present and each impact on the place in different ways. Critically, Charlie explained to us the importance of having a variety of browsers and grazers. Some areas, such as the parkland, had been grazed in such a way that the landscape looked positively barren (returning in summer would be interesting to see quite how biodiverse this part of the estate really is) but that is the essence of a pilot project. He keeps a stocking density of 0.3 livestock units across the estate but this seems to work better in some areas than others (in the UK 1 livestock unit is equivalent to a dairy cow or a horse; a heifer or steer under 2 years is about 0.6LU). The activities at Knepp have not been tried before and by this nature some things are going to work better than others (we know this at Devereux Farm with our sea buckthorn project). Charlie made it clear that it was vitally important to adapt as you go forward but critically to stick to the overall plan and know what it is that you are trying to achieve. He has brought together a brilliant team of experts, all of whom have been very happy to be involved, whom he can consult and they also run events and guided walks on the estate, paying Charlie a fee to do so. Having this advice at hand means that he can regularly keep a good overall picture of where he is heading. Nonetheless, it is clear that Charlie is a highly knowledgeable and passionate person, fully dedicated to what he is doing at Knepp and very much enthused as to how it will develop over time.
Across the landscape were clumps of sallow, blackthorn and bramble. The bramble acted as a ‘natural tree guard’ for oaks which were also appearing across the landscape, growing in a manner of Rackhamian wood pastures. The sallow was browsed at different levels by different animals. It was clear that the animals are the key reason why the scrub doesn’t ‘take over’ and appears to remain’ balanced’ while the process of succession continues. This point blank isn’t the case in most ‘conventionally managed’ conservation landscapes where teams of volunteers are often responsible for managing scrub (often good fun and still does the job but perhaps not as well as the Knepp herds).
A significant number of nightingales have come to the estate since the project began, a great success for a species that is fallen in number by 50% in the last twenty years. There are also rare beetles, numerous ant hills and intriguing lichens and fungi. Indeed, no matter your interest, whether it is birds, mammals, fungi, insects – there will be something of interest for you at Knepp and I urge you to visit. For me, it is the project as a whole and the interactions between species (as well as the way that the estate now seems to be stable economically) that is of interest and I can fully understand why it excites everybody who visits. It is clear that it remains a long term project and there remains much change to take place which is exciting. Charlie’s team are learning all the time and have experienced animal and plant behaviours previously unrecognised such as the pigs acting like hippopotami in the lake.
Knepp have a number of ‘rewetting’ rewilding waterscape projects as part of the broader ‘wildland’ project including the River Adur restoration project and the restoration of the Knepp lake which was in danger of silting up. Allowing water to move across the landscape in the manner that it does so without interference has broader impact and the team are already encouraged by the results in terms of increasing biodiversity further. The diversity of projects involved at Knepp is all part of the ethos of rewilding and this is something I took away from my day. Rewilding should be a holistic vision that is targeted but not rigidly defined. It is a process of learning and observation. Knepp provides lessons in shifting mindset as well as lessons in lowland landscape rewilding.
From a business point of view, Charlie made it clear that by shifting away from conventional farming he allowed a huge amount of time to be freed up to learn about and do other things, including the rewilding project of course but also to invest time in improving the vitality of other elements of his business, for example creating a glamping enterprise, improving the wider estate property and starting the ‘Knepp Estate safaris‘. He has concentrated on diversifying the estate buildings and has forged change of use to many so that they can be rented out to other businesses. He was very proud, and quite rightly, in telling us that the estate now helps in the employment of well over 150 people, far more than it did when it was a conventional farming business. They may not be employed in agriculture but it is still keeping money within the rural economy. At the same time it is improving the capital value of his assets. Further, whilst conventional farming may be a thing of the past at Knepp the estate continues to produce food and turns over a significant amount in its meat business, selling its pasture fed beef, venison and pork through local channels.
My one major concern regarding the project, and I questioned Charlie about this yesterday, relates to a post subsidies world, which I am personally convinced we will face at some point, whether that be 5 years, ten years, twenty years or fifty years time. Without single farm payment and stewardship subsidies would the Knepp project be viable for sustaining the estate? Charlie’s honest answer was that he didn’t know. The uncertainty regarding the future of subsidies is something that all land based businesses face. The best we can do, as Charlie is doing at Knepp, is diversify and build our businesses in such a way that they will remain resilient and profitable in a post subsidies world. I have been lucky to see numerous farms over the last year and I always ask this question in my head when I am looking around. Would this business remain profitable in a post subsidies world and if so, why? Further, how ecologically resilient is this business? Knepp is an experiment in lowland rewilding but it is also an experiment in the future of livestock production and alternative food production business.
Charlie Burrell is a visionary and there is no doubt that he is the perfect man to be chairing British rewilding’s flagship organisation – Rewilding Britain. We drove away from Knepp feeling enthused by the ecological and economical concepts we had experienced. I completely take Charlie’s point when he told us that the ecology is THE most important thing about the concept of rewilding. If you try to shape your project around conventional business thinking then it won’t work. You have to believe that you are doing the right thing and continue to do it until you see the results you have been hoping for (I seem to remember various organic farmers telling me the same thing in the past about the early days of organic conversion). The wonderful thing about rewilding in the way that Knepp are doing it is that you are never quite sure how things are going to turn out. Could it work for us in Essex? There is no reason why it couldn’t although much thought would have to go into the acreages and areas involved, which species/breeds to introduce, how to manage it economically and critically, whether it is the right thing for everyone involved in the farming business currently and in the future. After all, in reality it is a complete shift away from farming as we know it (and the landscape as we know it) towards something else entirely. I have touched upon this issue in my previous post on rewilding so won’t go in to it now but certainly I think the importance of farming identity is and should be a key consideration in the decision of where to rewild. Farmers and landowners are ultimately the people who will be most directly affected by the change in land use and must be consulted and brought on board in the way that is right for them before any change were to take place.
Yesterday was a lesson in shifting mindset as much as anything else. If we can’t rewild our hearts and our heads then we cannot hope to rewild the landscape as well.
Many thanks to Charlie (and Penny for the delicious brownies!) for showing us the estate and for instigating the discussion and I hope to visit Knepp again in the future. It is a fascinating place and I would urge anyone with the slightest interest in rewilding to go along.