The R-word (part 2) ……. or Caught Knepping……….

The deerpark at Knepp

I spent most of last week in West Sussex. As mentioned in the last post I am very interested in the idea and practice of re-wilding, but there was one thing I couldn’t quite grasp. It is accepted that the climax vegetation over most of the British Isles (most of the planet, I imagine) would be woodland, and it would be to woodland that re-wilded land would eventually revert.. If that were the case I couldn’t understand how there could be a niche – in a world before agriculture – for grassland plants and animals. Then I read an excellent book called Wilding by Isabella Tree, in which she describes the process by which she and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their farm  – Knepp – in West Sussex into wildlife habitat where natural processes hold sway.

The secret was to introduce grazing and browsing animals into the equation. In its primeval state woodland would have been kept in check by herds of wild cattle, horses, boar and deer. With the exception of the latter these large mammals have all become extinct, so the answer at Knepp was to introduce the nearest domesticated equivalents and let them roam freely : longhorn cattle, exmoor ponies, tamworth pigs and a selection of wild deer. The result is a continuously evolving mix of habitats which has attracted an exciting range of wildlife. Thickets of naturally occuring sallows are perfect for purple emperor butterflies, such that Knepp now holds the largest numbers of this stunning insect in Britain. Gorse and blackthorn scrub has attracted large numbers of nightingales, so much so that strictly speaking the re-wilding process should be stopped in its tracks and the land declared an S.S.S.I. for this species alone. The fast declining and now very rare turtle dove is at its highest British concentration at Knepp. It’s unlikely anyone would have expected these particular wildlife gains but that is the beauty of re-wilding. It is unpredictable. So I was very keen to see it with my own eyes.

Lets get a few things clear first about Knepp. It never was just any old farm. Knepp Castle is the ancestral home of the Burrell family, “Charlie” is in fact Sir Charles, and Isabella Tree is Lady Burrell. It is said in Wilding that the estate was close to becoming bankrupt thanks to its poor clay soils and other factors before the decision to re-wild it was taken. This may well have been the case, but Knepp also benefits from the properties it leases to small businesses and individuals. So it does have considerable financial advantages which would not be available to many farms.. The estate now runs exceptionally expensive jeep safaris, and has yurts, treehouses and the like for visitors to rent (at a premium), all of which seem to be booked up many months in advance.  Knepp has managed to maintain an exclusivity which might be difficult for other similar projects to acquire – even if they wanted to.

“Wild” piglets at Knepp

Nevertheless Knepp is a truly pioneering experiment in land-use which could be an example for others to follow.

The estate is criss-crossed by numerous public rights of way, so access was easy. Some bridleways were as wide as Welsh B-roads! The land is very flat and one was continually immersed in the landscape. Sturdy pedunculate oaks – such a contrast to the sessile oaks so familiar in Wales – line field boundaries and footpaths, and hedgerows were being allowed to expand outwards and upwards.  What must once have been fields of cereals or improved grassland were reverting to scrub en route to woodland. But it was frustrating that there were no viewpoints from which one could get an overall perspective of the rewilded area.  To be quite honest Knepp didn’t have the visually exciting qualities that I was expecting, although I’m sure a visit in spring would have been far more rewarding in a wildlife sense.  It is also the location of a white stork re-introduction project and although I heard bill-clattering and saw this year’s nest, I didn’t catch sight of an actual stork.

Around Knepp Castle itself is a traditional deer park dotted with ancient oaks and this proved the most photogenic area, especially at dawn on my last morning. A little low-lying fog and mist drifted around amonst the trees and I took my most successful picture there. I’m sure the message is quite clear; but note also the jet trail which I could easily have removed in post-processing. It must be there for a reason!

Otherwise photographic possibilities were few and far between. Skies were almost completely cloud-free for the three full days that we were there, and those really are difficult conditions for the landscape photographer. So I took the time to relax and enjoy the warm sunshine in the knowledge that before too long the rains of autumn and winter would soon be with us.

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The R word.

Cofiwch Dryweryn, Llanrhystud

Part One:

In 1965 the Tryweryn valley – north-west of Bala in north Wales – was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water for the city of Liverpool. This was despite a determined and almost unanimous campaign by Welsh M.P.’s and many other Welsh people. Permission for a dam to be built was the result, unusually, of an Act of Parliament being obtained. This avoided the need for local scrutiny through the planning process. Land and properties were obtained by a process of compulsory purchase; the inhabitants of Capel Celyn were forcibly removed and the village submerged. It is not surprising that the whole episode became pivotal in the recent history of Welsh nationalism. “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) has become shorthand for the English mistreatment of the Welsh nation. The reservoir itself is probably the ugliest in the whole of Wales.

During the run-up to the flooding the Welsh nationalist (and later writer and academic) Meic Stephens drove around Wales scrawling “Cofwich Dryweryn” on various buildings.  One, on a ruined cottage in a prominent position by the A487 near Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, survived. It has become a kind of unofficial national monument, despite being partly demolished and rebuilt several times, most notably earlier this year. Following the most recent vandalisation, copycat graffiti quickly appeared in various locations all over Wales. The vandals proved to be their own worst enemy.

Part Two:

I have previously written about Re-wilding – here, for example.  The idea was really brought into the public domain by George Monbiot, in his book “Feral” – published in 2013. He lived in Machynlleth (mid-Wales) for several years and what he saw and experienced in the area were very important to his way of thinking. He had explored the hill country around the town and saw how badly it had been “sheep-wrecked”, and how even the conservation agencies were complicit in keeping it that way. In “Feral” he went through the economics of sheep farming in great detail, concluding that without the EU subsidies sheep farming was completely uneconomic.  Monbiot said that re-wilding would be a far better use of the land if the farmers were willing to accept it. The farming unions went ballistic! They mistakenly concluded that Monbiot was advocating compulsory re-wilding and that their members would be thrown off their land.

Perhaps if Monbiot had written about sheep farming in the Pennines, for example, where the problems are probably identical, he would have stirred up less bad feeling.  The Welsh language is a pretty sensitive subject round here and its heartland is in the farming community. I can understand the sensitivities involved but when the farming community feel most threatened the language issue always comes up. It’s like the nuclear option.

Re-wilding protest, Machynlleth

Part Three:

Earlier this year the charity Rewilding Britain announced one of their new projects –  Summit to Sea. Based in Machynlleth, the project aims to use re-wilding principles, where appropriate, and agreements with farmers and landowners, to improve biodiversity over a 10,000 hectare area of mid-Wales from the summit of Pumlumon to the coast, and offshore well into the waters of Cardigan Bay.  Its “core area” is the Dyfi estuary, already the location of an extensive National Nature Reserve, an RSPB reserve (Ynyshir), and the Dyfi Osprey Project. Alongside the biodiversity aims, the project proposes to create living landscapes where local communities are able to enjoy sustainable lifestyles. It has proved extremely controversial. The farming unions have come out against it, despite the fact that the project is funded to the tune of £3.4m over the first five years. With the future of farming subsidies in such grave doubt following Brexit, why ever would farmers want to look such a gift horse in the mouth? It just doesn’t make sense.

The problem is the “R-word”. Many mid-Wales sheep farmers seem to believe they have an inalienable right to carry on farming the way they are now doing, largely at the public expense. They refuse to accept that the degraded landscapes and wildlife that surround them are the results of their activities – prompted by government policies – over a period of several decades. They do not see why or how they should possibly change their farming methods to give nature a chance to recover. Some – not all – have seen wildlife as the enemy for so long that it is difficult for them to change their mindset. The idea that re-wilding would be compulsory is still propogated by the farming lobby, despite repeated denials.

So there is now a campaign underway to scrap the Summit to Sea project completely. Stickers, banners, and slogans are appearing all over the area saying “no” to re-wilding. One in Machynlleth rather worryingly also includes the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” slogan. Is it their intention to associate re-wilding in mid-Wales with flooding the Tryweryn valley by Liverpool City Council in the 1960’s? One can’t be sure. But there is one big difference: re-wilding will always be voluntary whereas eviction from the village of Capel Celyn was compulsory.

For more on Summit to Sea click here

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