Written by Reaseheath Farm Advisor Jane Atkinson

I recently had the chance to visit the Knepp Estate in Sussex to see their rewilding project and what an inspiration! 

Established in 2001 the Knepp project has produced astonishing results in terms of recovering habitats and biodiversity.  But its potential as a provider of vital ecosystem services, including soil restoration, is greater still and could revolutionise land management in the UK. 

History: Extending to 3,500 acres the decision to come out of in-hand dairy and arable farming was made in 2000.  On mainly grade 4 soils the land had never lent itself to modern agricultural production and the financial losses were becoming unsustainable.  The decision to rewild came as a result of the restoration of the 350-acre parkland around the house from maize to native flowers and grasses through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.  Other land blocks followed, some just left while awaiting funding which was finally achieved for the whole estate in 2009.   

Results: What has emerged is a landscape that does not look like England.  Rough, hummocky grassland, thorny scrub, billowing out hedgerows grazed by Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Red and Fallow deer and Tamworth pigs.  They free-rein so they are allowed to trample, rootle, puddle, graze, wallow and browse wherever they like.  They are preventing the succession of closed canopy woodland and recreating a diverse landscape and driving habitat complexity.  Biodiversity has rocketed – nightingales, peregrine falcons, turtle doves, purple emperor butterfly, all 5 species of owl, 13 out of the UK’s 17 species of bat, an astonishing number of invertebrates, 19 species of earthworm. 

The mix of different grazing animals is crucial as is the willingness to embrace messy, exuberant scrubland and allow it space in the landscape. 

Finances: The project has been financed through agri-environment schemes, sale of beef and venison, and tourism.  When compared to income per ha it is in keeping with conventional agriculture.  Knepp Home Farm generates £133 per acre (excluding rents and tourism) which compares to £112 per acre across all estates in the Savill’s benchmarking system. 

Potential: With agricultural funding having the biggest shakeup in its history the implications underlying this project are enormous.  Knepp shows how rewilding the land leads to the provision of public goods – carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, water storage, ethical meat production and soil regeneration.   While not suitable for grade 1 agricultural land, it may be suitable for marginal land with ‘farm clusters’ whereby groups of farmers club together to achieve landscape-scale restoration together.   

Visit: See it for yourself, go on a Knepp safari there is something for everyone – see the Deer rut, hear the dawn chorus, see owls, kingfishers, purple emperor butterflies – you will be inspired!

More information:  

Knepp.co.uk 

rewildingbritain.org.uk 

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm – A brilliant book on the project written by Isabella wife of Charlie Burrell owner of Knepp.