Visiting the Knepp Estate: a lesson in rewilding

Ben Eagle and his father David visited the Knepp Estate earlier this month to assess the potential of creating a similar project on their family’s land in Essex. Ben shares his reflections on his visit

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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 was a true adventure in imagination and a lesson in rewilding landscapes and human minds.

I wanted to see for myself how Knepp had been transformed from a 3,500-acre traditional estate to the restorative environmental project it is today. My father and I are looking at alternative futures for our 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. We are looking to alternatives, and we wanted to see how one can balance tourism and environment while remaining food producers. Knepp seems to be achieving this.

Bold steps

For decades, agriculture, in the form of dairy and arable farming, were the mainstay for economic activity and employment at Knepp, but, in the early 2000s, continuation of the status quo had simply become unviable. Charlie decided to take bold steps in an alternative direction to make the land pay in the modern world but also to restore the land ecologically.

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, 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 managed conventionally.

The animals on the estate are the key drivers of positive change within the landscape. Tamworth pigs, Longhorn cattle, Fallow and Roe deer and Exmoor ponies are all present and each impact in different ways. Critically, Charlie explained to us the importance of having a variety of browsers and grazers. 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 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).

Signs of success

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 past 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 has experienced animal and plant behaviours previously unrecognised, such as the pigs wallowing like hippopotami in the lake.

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Blissed out: one happy hog

Knepp has 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 without causing interference has broader impact and the team is already encouraged by resulting increase in biodiversity. 

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.

Good for business

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, 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 they can be rented out to other businesses. He was very proud, quite rightly, in telling us that the estate now employs well over 150 people, far more than it did when it was a conventional farming business. They may not be working in agriculture but it is still keeping money within the rural economy. Further, while 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.

A post-subsidies world

My one major concern regarding the project, and I questioned Charlie about this: without single farm payment and stewardship subsidies, would the Knepp project be viable? Charlie’s honest answer is that he doesn’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 past year and I always ask this question. Would this business remain profitable without subsidy, 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.

We drove away from Knepp feeling enthused by the ecological and economical concepts we had experienced. Could it work for us in Essex? There is no reason why not, 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). Farmers and landowners are the people who will be most directly affected by changes in land use and must be consulted and involved in the way that is right for them before any change takes place.

My visit to the Knepp Estate 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.

About the author

Ben Eagle is an agricultural and environmental commentator, regularly blogging at www​.think​ing​coun​try​.word​press​.com. He is currently a postgraduate student in agriculture at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester and his family farms on the north east Essex coast, near Walton-on-the-Naze. Ben and his father David visited the Knepp Estate earlier this month to assess the potential of creating a similar project on their family’s land in Essex.