Wild for rewilding

Features Posted 30/03/21
Nigel Akehurst visits Knepp Estate in West Sussex to find out more about a pioneering rewilding project and new plans to start a companion regenerative farm.

Knepp is a 3,500 acre estate, just south of Horsham, West Sussex. Since 2001 the estate, which is owned by husband and wife Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, has been home to the UK’s largest lowland rewilding nature conservation project.

The remarkable ‘letting go’ of the previously conventionally farmed land has created a flourishing habitat of previously imperilled species such as turtle doves, nightingales and purple emperor butterflies. The journey from intensive arable and dairy farm to rewilded conservation habitat and tourism business has been widely publicised in the mainstream media and cited in the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

The project is also the subject of Isabella Tree’s award winning book Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm that describes the creation of Knepp Wildland (the name given to the rewilding project).

The environmentalist couple are now excited to announce the establishment of a companion regenerative farm, shop and cafe at Knepp, headed up by ex Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) general manager Russ Carrington.

The new project will utilise land adjacent to the southern and middle block of rewilding and will encompass mob grazing cattle, pastured poultry and a market garden. It will also include a farm shop and 60-seat cafe housed in a collection of converted farm buildings.

Modern farming was unsustainable

For those readers unfamiliar with the conservation project at Knepp, it’s interesting to look back at its recent history.

Charlie inherited the estate in 1985, aged just 22. Having trained at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, he seized the opportunity to modernise, scaling up the dairy and arable farming enterprises. Together with his wife Isabella they invested heavily in the latest machinery and modern breeds of high yielding dairy cows.

They also added value by diversifying into own-brand yoghurt, cheese and ice cream. However, by the late 90s it was becoming increasingly clear that the farm wasn’t financially sustainable. With the threat of bankruptcy looming large they decided they had to make a radical change.

Letting go

In 2000 they began their rewilding experiment, laying off 11 staff and removing 70 miles of internal fences. They introduced English Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, fallow and red deer and allowed them to roam freely.

The experiment was supported with a Countryside Stewardship Scheme grant. More recently the whole estate has benefitted from Higher Level Stewardship funding.

At the heart of the Knepp experiment is the influence of Dutch ecologist Dr Franciscus Vera’s ground-breaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History, which was translated into English the same year as the project began.

Vera identifies grazing animals as a fundamental and necessary force of natural disturbance. Before human impact, animals like wisent (European bison), elk, tarpan (the original wild horse), European beaver and the omnivorous wild boar, together with red deer and roe deer, would have been present in huge numbers - similar to the numbers we see in Africa today.

Charlie and Isabella describe the switch to rewilding as a gradual “letting go” and while they don’t produce as much food as before they are still raising livestock for meat.

“It’s always been a struggle to farm here. With the Wildland Project we’re still raising livestock, only now it’s extensive rather than intensive farming – more like ranching, really – and the animals are driving the great positives of biodiversity, habitat and soil restoration,” explained Charlie.

Wild range meat

Knepp manages the free roaming populations of Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, red and fallow venison by selective culling. This meat (totaling around 75 tonnes live weight annually) is used to produce a range of organic, Pasture for Life-accredited roasting joints, sausages, steaks, burgers and more adventurous cuts. All the meat is sold frozen, with limited year-round availability via courier or click and collect at their campsite shop.

This side of the business is led by Ian Mepham and Ned Burrell, Charlie and Isabella’s son, and a new state-of-the-art butchery is being developed to increase capacity.

Commercial lets

The majority of the estate’s redundant farm buildings have been converted into business lets, adding to the large portfolio of properties for rent, including cottages, houses, offices, light industrial units and stables.

Wildland safaris and camping

In recent years the rewilded landscape and diverse flora and fauna at Knepp has also enabled Charlie and Isabella to develop a thriving tourism business that employs 30 people part-time, plus volunteers. In 2020, they received nearly 40,000 visitors.

Vintage 1960s Austrian troop carriers are used to transport safari tour groups around the three rewilded blocks. The tours are led by specialist guides, many of whom are trained ecologists, taking in sights such as Knepp’s “big five” - Tamworth pigs, English longhorns, Exmoor ponies, red deer and fallow deer, as well as the harder to spot “small five” - purple emperor bufferflies, turtle doves, Bechstein’s bats, peregrine falcons and nightingales.

Knepp also offers on-site accommodation including three shepherd’s huts and two tree houses, with nine glamping units in total. They also have field camping with 15 pitches. Children under 12 are not allowed, but campfires are permitted.

Impact of Covid-19

I asked visitor manager Rachel Knott about the impact of Covid-19 and their plans for re-opening. She answered that while Covid-19 had adversely impacted their business in 2020, they were able to operate last season when permitted and were feeling optimistic for this coming season.

She added they planned to re-open some of their safaris on Monday 12 April, with tours being restricted to walking groups rather than their safari vehicles. The campsite will be re-opening on 17 May in line with government guidance.

Knepp Regenerative Farm

Curious to learn more about the exciting new regenerative farm and plans for a new farm shop and cafe, I met Russ Carrington at the site of the new project.

He explained that the farmland bordered the estate’s rewilding project and that he planned to achieve Countryside Stewardship backing. Physical features on the land such as hedgerows and wildflower meadows will be managed and placed so as to create nature corridors that connect wildlife with existing and new habitats.

“Baseline surveys are already underway to identify the condition of the soil, species abundance, water quality and other natural assets from the outset. These will then be monitored for improvement as the project develops,” he said.

“At the heart of the new scheme are soil health and food production.”

What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative Farming is a relatively new approach to farming that seeks to regenerate the land, soil and water, as well as enhancing the wider environment and improving the nutrient density of food produced. However, the prescriptions are not rigid, as every farm is different, with its own set of unique circumstances, soil type and geography.

Regenerative and rewilding working together

Knepp hopes to demonstrate how rewilding and regenerative agriculture can work together, building a resilient, productive, biodiverse countryside for the future.

The farm will initially host organic pasture-fed cattle, a pastured poultry enterprise and a market garden. At the time of writing, Knepp is looking for a knowledgeable grower to help establish an organic horticultural business on a 2.9 acre south facing site. More details are available on the Knepp website (www.kneppestate.co.uk).

Central to the regeneration of the existing pasture will be mob grazing cattle. Russ carried out some trials last summer with some of Knepp’s Longhorn cattle and after much debate they have decided to select native pedigree Sussex cattle for the farm.

Initially they plan to buy in around 50 suckler cows and build from there as the soil improves. They will be using mobile electric fencing as well as trialing ten GPS collars supplied by Norwegian tech company No Fence.

I ask Russ his views on regenerative farming and the challenging economic climate facing farmers.

“Farming in a regenerative way is more about farming in a particular direction and following core principles rather than being defined by specific end goals,” he said.

“Farmers are facing a challenging economic climate with many uncertainties, but there is increasing clarity about the direction of travel. The vision of this project is to deliver multiple public goods for the local community and wider society – healthy food, of course, but also better soil, clean water, clean air and habitat for wildlife – while sequestering carbon to help combat climate change.”

New farm shop and cafe

Key to the success of the new regenerative farm venture is the new farm shop, where customers will be able to buy their pasture-raised meat, eggs and fresh produce from the farm along with other goods sourced locally.

Russ and I visited the site, Old Swallows farmyard, which will have a new direct access road onto the busy A24. Construction of the buildings is already underway but we managed to pop into the old Sussex barn which will eventually be converted into a 60-seat cafe and farm shop. It’s a stunning oak-framed space and will be an impressive venue.

Is Knepp a model for other farms?

Knepp is a fascinating example of an estate that is constantly evolving and has garnered global fame for its pioneering rewilding project and nature safaris. It’s interesting to note that there are now a number of large estates in the UK following Knepp’s lead.

The ideas being explored at Knepp are not just applicable to large farms and estates. There are other local farming cluster groups working together to deliver public goods; from creating nature corridors to moving towards regenerative farming practices to improve the land. I’m told even gardens can be rewilded (sounds like a great excuse not to mow the grass) - with the formal croquet lawn at Knepp Castle being transformed.

On a more serious note, as Russ pointed out, there’s increasing clarity about where the direction of UK farming should be heading. It’s about producing multiple public goods – healthy food as well as better soil, clean water, clean air and habitat for nature. You can follow the progress of the Knepp Estate on instagram (@kneppregenfarms) as the regenerative farming enterprise gets off the ground. I look forward to visiting the new shop and cafe next year.


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