Small scale rewilding delivers big scale rewards in biodiversity and profitability on traditional farmland
Knepp Castle Estate comprises 3,500 acres of heavy weald clay in West Sussex. Though farmed intensively since WW2, the farm rarely made a profit. Rewilding has turned this around. Knepp has attracted support from Natural England through the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. And its focus on rewilding has prompted successful spin off enterprises. The farmland is now profitable.
From the start, the project benefitted from the vision of an influential advisory group. This included the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera and CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust, Tony Whitbread.
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Knepp Wildland’s ethos is to allow natural processes rather than aiming for any particular goals or outcomes. Free-roaming grazing animals - cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - drive this process-led regeneration. They act as proxies for herbivores that would have grazed the land thousands of years ago. Their different grazing preferences help create a mosaic of habitats from grassland and scrub to open-grown trees and wood pasture.
These animals need minimal intervention. At low cost, they provide wild-range, slow-grown, pasture-fed organic meat for which there is a growing market. The fact that Knepp is still producing food – albeit extensively – has been a useful ally.
In just over a decade Knepp has seen astonishing results in biodiversity. It is now a breeding hotspot for purple emperor butterflies, turtle doves and 2 per cent of the UK’s population of nightingales.
Initial opposition to the project came from local people shocked at seeing the changing appearance of the land. This is waning thanks to these results. It still has problems to overcome - for example, common ragwort.
Knepp Wildland Safaris - a camping and guided safari venture started in 2014 – is proving popular with the public.