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.
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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