Not long after the turn of the century, one landowner in Sussex made a startling decision: to take an entire 1400 hectare estate out of production and turn it over almost entirely to wildlife. The results have been so good that more and more people are talking about the Knepp estate, and a couple of weeks back I was fortunate enough to go, one of a group of young and youngish (that’s me!) people from the A Focus On Nature network attending a wildlife-packed weekend of walks and workshops. Ostensibly I was there to help run an invertebrate session, but mostly I just felt like an eager participant. I’ve seldom enjoyed the company of such a keen, knowledgeable group of young people and on the whole it was not so much about some teaching others as us all learning from each other.
So what is Knepp like, on first impression? It’s not immediately mind-blowing in terms of wildlife, although the quietness may have had more to do with it being mid-July, in what has been a poor summer for many kinds of insect. I’ve seen more spectacular displays in some British nature reserves. But a fairer comparison would be to any other arable farm in southern England. Compared even to a sympathetically managed farm with plenty of wildlife-rich habitat in the field margins and hedgerows, Knepp abounds with life. Look closely, and some of it is pretty astounding: for example, where else can you see so many purple emperors in a single day?* The abundance of small flies swarming to my head torch after dark ran a close second in the impressiveness stakes, McCarthy-esque insect snowstorms being all too rare a phenomenon, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many young frogs and toads.
The feel of the place is unique too. Even our nature reserves are, for the most part, held static. They have to be: the rare habitats and species they protect have nowhere else to go. At Knepp, scrub comes and goes at will, or rather at the behest of Knepp’s driving force, the free roaming old-breed livestock and deer herds. It’s that ‘free-range’ scrub that has catalyzed the purple emperor explosion, this supposedly woodland-loving butterfly finding its ideal home in vast expanses of sallow (food plant of the emperor caterpillar). It has also proved beneficial for nightingales and turtle doves, species bucking the national trend by increasing at Knepp. Rare plants, invertebrates and fungi are starting to appear too, the varying fates of each part of this vast area of self-willed land facilitating colonisation into a cornucopia of otherwise scarce niches. The Pan-species listers among us were pretty impressed to see a bracket fungus on oak that only occurs in a handful of locations in Europe.
Perhaps the most important thing about the Knepp experiment is that it seems to be finding favour across diverse parts of the U.K. wildlife scene. A few days after our visit a group of staff from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust were there to look around, and were very positive about the estate afterwards in blogs and tweets (worth a read here for more detail on how the project works). It’s a place of pleasing contradictions where everybody can find something to like. Knepp is rewilded (whatever we happen to mean by that), but still a profitable food-producing estate; native wildlife has priority, but pheasants are allowed to persist and are still shot on a small (non driven) scale. Finding common ground between everyday nature lovers and landowning (usually shooting) constituencies has never been more important, for the more these ‘sides’ are at loggerheads the more wildlife will suffer. It challenges assumptions too. I had been cynical about the rewilding movement, perhaps due to a grumpy inclination to distrust anything promoted with evangelical fervour and certainty. At Knepp I saw a form of rewilding translated into the real world – and it works.
So, is Knepp the future model for UK conservation? Well, it couldn’t happen everywhere and nor do I think it should. As estate owner Sir Charles Burrell noted in his introduction to the weekend, we need our nature reserves to go on acting as reservoirs for rare species. Elsewhere we need to retain plenty of land for farming in the more traditional sense of the word, for arable crops, fruit and vegetables. Man cannot live on expensive, free-range organic meat alone, although those of us who are still carnivores could probably afford to eat much less meat and stick to the good stuff. It would be instructive to have a whole series of Knepp-like experiments running: some bigger, some smaller, on different soil types, in different parts of the country, some introducing a variety of grazers and some relying on what’s already naturally present. I’d be particularly interested to see it done with a dairy farming estate in the West Country, since thinking and research around farmland wildlife seem to focus overwhelmingly on arable and the east.
I confess I feel uneasy that the only way to achieve this is to rely on the largesse of big landowners. It’s fantastic that Charles Burrell found himself with the land to pursue this vision, but how many others would be willing to follow? One can hardly blame a man for the circumstances of his birth, though, and I should stress that whilst Knepp is private land it is very much open to visitors. It’s very accommodating to ecologists who want to come and study; you can wander across the estate freely on public footpaths and whilst the safaris seem costly they’re really not bad value considering how many hours’ adventure in the company of a knowledgeable guide they represent. The estate was extremely generous to AFON in facilitating our visit. Nonetheless, it would be great to see similar projects on community- – a ‘co-op Knepp’, if you like – or publicly-owned land. In the meantime I would urge everyone with an interest in the future of wild Britain to go and see what’s happening at Knepp for themselves.
*That’s not actually a rhetorical question: Knepp now has the biggest population of purple emperors in the UK, achieved in about 15 years from a starting position of 0.
With thanks to all the organisers of the weekend, in particular Simon Phelps (AFON), Tony Davis (Butterfly Conservation) and Penny Green (Knepp).