As Chair I have been watching Rewilding Britain grow as an organisation and I am delighted that we now have three large-scale rewilding projects in Wales, Scotland and England in our sights. Over the next ten years we’ll be focussing our efforts on establishing these three pilot schemes. From my own experience with our rewilding project at Knepp in West Sussex, it’s clear there’s no better way to inspire other landowners about alternative land use than to showcase a living, breathing example of rewilding in action. Like Knepp, these three projects will – on a much larger scale – take a radically different approach to conventional nature conservation. Rather than being governed by specific goals or target species, they will be ‘process-led’. The driving principle, like ours here at Knepp, will be to establish functioning ecosystems where nature is given as much freedom as possible. And, just like Knepp, they will — we hope — demonstrate that letting nature take the driving seat can work both for both nature and the economy.
At Knepp, we’re seeing a growing interest from people wanting to understand how rewilding works, to experience our ‘hands-off’ approach in action. It’s a surprisingly difficult thing for most of us to grasp – that by letting go, by allowing nature to perform on its own, we can get better results than if we’d spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money closely managing it. Nature can simply do better than us. After all, she was doing it long before we humans ever arrived on the scene.
We’ve had literally thousands of people coming to Knepp this year to see our project – from NGOs, the press, and even from Government, as well as several thousand members of the public. Most recently we’ve had a crew from BBC’s Countryfile. Our red deer stags put on quite a show for them, roaring and pawing the ground, and plunging into the water. It was the start of the deer rut here, and the main harem of hinds stood looking on, singularly unimpressed – it seemed – as the young bloods strutted their stuff. It’s always a pleasure to re-connect people with wild nature, especially here – so close to London, in the most populated part of Britain, where one least expects it. And of course, it’s a great opportunity to share what we’re learning here about the potential for future conservation in the UK.
It’s always a dramatic moment, too, standing in a landscape of thorny scrub that looks more like Africa, surrounded by birdsong, to remind visitors, as we did with the Countryfile team, where this land has come from. Almost all of our 3,500 acres was intensively farmed until 2001. When I took over from my grandparents in 1985 the farm was already failing. Our heavy Sussex clay makes it impossible to compete with modern industrialised farms on richer, lighter soil. After doing everything we could to make a go of it for 15 years – throwing more pesticides, more fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides at the land, buying bigger machinery, investing in infrastructure, making efficiencies, trying to diversify – we realised we could never make conventional farming pay. Our overdraft was rocketing.
Turning to rewilding was, certainly, a leap of faith. But the long and bitter experience of running a failing business had convinced me we had to do something with the land, rather than fight against it all the time. Above all, we had to find something that was financially sustainable for our land.
So, in 2000, we cleared our debts by selling our dairy herds and farm machinery and, in stages over the following six years, allowed the fields to revert to nature. Inspired by grazing conservation projects in the Netherlands, I began to understand the vital importance of herbivores in the landscape, how using even domesticated animals as proxies for some of the megafauna that would have been roaming our land before human impact, can generate biodiversity. The different grazing techniques and physical disturbance from our free-roaming Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, and red and fallow deer – from trampling and puddling to rootling, rubbing, snapping branches and de-barking trees – together with their ability to transfer nutrients and disperse seeds over wide areas, has created (and continues to create) all sorts of opportunities for vegetation and other wildlife.
Numerous endangered British birds like nightingales, cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, whitethroats, lesser spotted woodpeckers, woodlarks, skylarks, lapwing, peregrine falcons, red kites, ravens and sparrowhawks are now breeding at Knepp. We now have all five UK species of owl, and 13 out of the UK’s 17 species of bat. We’re the only place in Britain where turtle doves (the most likely bird species to go extinct within our shores by 2025) are actually rising. We have the biggest breeding UK population of rare purple emperor butterflies having had none for at least 50 years. Every month we discover more species that have found us. It feels like we’re living in the middle of an ever-evolving miracle.
But it’s not just wildlife that’s thriving. Tourism has provided us with an important alternative income stream. This year, 1,300 people came on wildlife safaris and 2,500 stayed with us in our camping and glamping site. Our old farm buildings (that used to cost a fortune to maintain) now bring in rent as storage space, light industrial workshops and offices. Businesses in these buildings employ around 200 people locally, bringing jobs back into the countryside. We also sell 35 tonnes of premium organic, pasture-fed beef, venison and pork a year. We are constantly learning, but I think it’s fair to say that our days of struggling to farm on our poor clay soil, and losing money year-on-year, are well and truly over.
It’s a story that people find astonishing and I never tire of seeing the excitement our rewilding project inspires. So I have big hopes for Rewilding Britain’s three pilot projects and how they will help to engage people in the concept of rewilding. Because it’s only when you’re actually standing in a landscape that is humming, buzzing, brimming with life that you can feel the difference; that you can appreciate how easy it is to restore nature, even to places that had once been, in terms of wildlife habitat, virtual deserts. And if these projects can demonstrate, at the same time, that there are positive benefits for people and communities, that jobs and important public services are being created by restoring living landscapes, then I hope we’ll also be able to make a strong case to encourage other landowners across Britain to take the leap into rewilding. And no doubt we’ll be providing Countryfile with exciting stories for decades to come, too.
To find out more about Rewilding Britain’s four principles guiding their approach to rewilding, read more here.
Charlie Burrell is the owner of Knepp Estate, and Chair of Rewilding Britain.