By Anders Lorenzen
I recently spent a week at the Knepp Estate, one of the largest, oldest rewilding projects in the UK.
The rewilding concept has become popular in UK environmental circles in recent years, especially since Guardian columnist and environmental activist George Monbiot introduced it in his 2013 book Feral in which he explored the topic in some depth. He has now become one of the UK’s top ambassadors for rewilding parts of our countryside.
So what is rewilding?
In essence, rewilding is a large-scale conservation practice aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing some species.
In 1987, Charlie Burrell inherited the 3,500 Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, southern England from his grandparents. The estate had been farmed intensively since the Second World War, despite its heavy clay soil, common in the Sussex ‘wealds’ in the region, being very difficult to farm, especially intensively, so the Estate was making a loss. With his wife , author and travel writer Isabella Tree, Burrell began looking at alternative ways to bring in an income from the estate and was inspired by a Dutch rewilding project in the 1980’s led by the Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera which had shown great potential for increasing biodiversity on a previously unviable stretch of reclaimed land. The project had, controversially at the time, involved reintroducing grazing animals to land as part of its restoration and Burrell was very keen to do the same at Knepp. Support was hard to find in the early days however Knepp eventually received funding from Natural England to go ahead with some initial plans involving, amongst others, old species of deer, cattle and ponies
In her popular 2018 ‘Wilding’ book, Isabella Tree wrote ‘In 2013 George Monbiot published a plea for a wilder Britain in his inspirational book Feral. The public response was extraordinary. He seemed to have attuned to a craving that people were feeling but hadn’t yet voiced: the idea that we are missing something–some more fulfilling connection with nature in all its awe-inspiring, unfettered complexity; that we are living in a desert compared to our gloriously wild past.’
Short and long term gains
Whilst rewilding is a long term commitment as it takes some time for an area to recover from activities like intensive farming, mining and other industrial processes, Knepp has already experienced fantastic results with new flora and fauna booming across the estate.
All five species of UK owls are now found on the Estate, as are a pair of nesting White Storks which were re-introduced in 2016 who are potentially the first free-flying pair of White Storks to nest in England since the species was persecuted to extinction after the English Civil War. The Purple Emperor butterfly, which has declined steadily in numbers during the twentieth century has chosen to develop a large colony at Knepp, potentially the largest one in the UK of this rare butterfly. Interested members of the public can go on the Estate’s ‘The Purple Emperor Challenge’ guided by a map showcasing the butterfly’s most popular spots on the estate for viewing them. Other Knepp conservation success stories can be found here.
The majority of Knepp’s income comes from ecotourism; they currently offer camping, glamping as well as a variety of wildlife safaris on foot, horseback and in safari vehicles.
I stayed at their camping site for a week which felt as close to as you can get on a commercial campsite. Knepp has taken a whole new approach to camping; campers are invited to camp in a wildflower meadow of high grass with limited tent pitching spots and very tight rules on how many guests can stay and strict rules about noise levels. There’s an abundance of wildlife on site, with scores of wild rabbits, birdlife, bees and other insects. There’s a wild swimming pond next door in which you can have a refreshing swim and butterflies hovering around you.
A welcome positive solution in a time of pressing challenges
Knepp demonstrates that one can still have a form of animal agriculture and whilst tackling biodiversity loss and climate change if it is done the right way. It offers invaluable solutions for some of our most pressing problems such as soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, biodiversity loss and carbon sequestration.
The wider UK picture
While Knepp has experienced extraordinary progress, many more rewilding efforts are needed across the country. As Tree writes: ‘Ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries, we (UK) are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’ so there is no time to waste.
The ambition of the charity Rewilding Britain, which Charlie Burrell chairs, has ambitious targets, as his wife writes: ‘By 2030 (Rewilding Britain) aims to have returned natural ecological processes and key species to 300,000 hectares of core land (1,158 square miles, equivalent to the size of Britain’s golf courses, or roughly equivalent to a large county) and three marine areas, crucial for the restoration of our fisheries and marine wildlife. Over the next hundred years, it hopes this will have extended to at least 1 million hectares, or 4.5 per cent of Great Britain’s land and 30 per cent of our territorial waters, with at least one large rewilded area connecting both land and sea, descending from mountaintops to coastal waters’.
A nature lover and environmentalist cannot help but leave Knepp feeling inspired. Spending time both on a farm and in nature at the same time is a fantastic feeling, especially waking up to an orchestra of birdsong every morning as is enjoying a cup of tea in the central ‘Go-Down’ office which serves visitors, reading the daily updated chalkboard listing all the most recent signings.
Eco-tourism isn’t always something we need to travel long distances to experience, Knepp proves that it is available just on our doorstep, just an hours drive out of London.
Camping is priced at £17 per person per night, with the various glamping options listed here.