Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell loved to travel from West Sussex to the fauna of wilder places in the world. No longer. They have re-envisioned their ‘backyard’ as semi-wilderness. Some backyard! They own the Knepp estate of 3,500 acres where, until the year 2000, they struggled to keep an arable and dairy farm out of the red, only turning a profit twice despite the tools and chemicals of intensive management.
The land was impoverished after centuries of farming the famously sticky Weald clay (local people have 30 adjectives for the mud). Vagaries in market prices and dependence on subsidies have plunged many small and mid-sized farms into bankruptcy, but they drew back from defeat with an original idea, though it inflamed tradition-bound rural neighbors.
They sold their livestock and farm equipment to let natural processes rule. People grumbled at the eyesore and wicked waste of food production, but over the next two decades the experiment in land ecology rolled forward to win plaudits. Isabella’s account of the makeover is acclaimed by the Daily Mail as the ‘most inspirational book of the year’ (2019).
The couple was inspired by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera who championed a controversial rewilding project on reclaimed land near Amsterdam, the Oostvaardersplassen. There are other large projects across the continent, but none in England apart from Knepp. Vera dismissed conventional belief in northern Europe under uniform tree cover before human immigration. He imagined a cool savannah with indigenous red deer, wild boar, extinct aurochs and other large herbivores grazing in a mosaic of forest and grassland. Without a tightly-knit canopy it was a more biologically diverse and productive environment.
Strictly speaking, Knepp is not rewilded, which is why her book is titled, ‘Wilding’. Regulations, public opinion and feasibility forbade reintroduction of some native fauna. There could be no brown bear, wolf, lynx and of course auroch that might escape into local gardens, and even wild boar and beavers were excluded, though some feral animals already lurk in the English countryside. The environmental entrepreneurs had to find mimics for the original inhabitants: ancient breeds of cattle (English longhorn) and pigs (Tamworth) and they introduced fallow deer. Wildflower seeds were broadcast and Victorian drains were removed to recreate wetland, which would have horrified ancestors. Nature claimed land back rather quickly considering how long heavy hands ruled there. Herds of herbivores became self-sustaining, so much so they had to be controlled by harvesting or transfer to other estates.
Vera predicted browsing herbivores and the shovel noses of pigs would reshape the landscape. Animals and plants that were rare or extinct returned in remarkable numbers, many for breeding, including nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and two of the rarest bats.
Even the more pigheaded detractors have admitted the couple’s courage and fortitude. Government grants were beyond reach, even from agencies founded to promote nature, and the whims of nature offered numerous obstacles and setbacks, but support was won from leading naturalists and ecologists who continue to help the project evolve. The estate is now a place of pilgrimage, safari tours and so-called glamping (glamorous camping). The prime organic meat is in demand and helps to provide economic stability that once seemed a dream.
A large estate with a castle isn’t an ideal model for other farms with marginal land and strained budgets, but Knepp is shining example for them to consider formerly unthinkable options that frighten bank managers. There is no more conservative base than the countryside where people will often resist change by appealing to aesthetics. But the beauty of landscape is in the eye of the beholder and the image of fields clothed in monoculture and hills (called downs) cropped to the dirt by fluffy sheep has changed, and quite perceptively even in my memory from intensive farming. This is a matter of Shifting Baselines, described in a much earlier post. The southern English countryside is more bereft of wildlife and open spaces for spiritual refreshment of local and visiting folk than any European neighbor. It lost wilderness thousands of years ago to cultivation of almost every fertile acre.
Young people were always a source of hope for a brighter future and more daring imagination. There are many more today who want to reset our relationship with nature, shifting from the absolute domination of enslaved land to a gentler and more sustainable partnership. Some people ask if this moment of history in a pandemic is an opportunity not to be missed. It is a work in progress, like the Knepp project, and to that I say, Amen.
Photos courtesy of Knepp estate