Perspective

Rewild, recover: how a failing Sussex farm has become a beacon of hope


Of the many pressing issues that the 2020 Covid pandemic has brought to the surface, our connection with nature – and the precarious state of the natural world – is high on the list.

“It was an amazing spring,” says Isabella Tree. “It was sunny and still, there were no aircraft overhead, and the birdsong was unbelievable. And then suddenly lockdown restrictions were lifted, and in the three months after that we had tens of thousands of visitors.

“There’s a desperate need for people to connect with nature in times of stress, particularly if you’ve been living in the city or in a flat. People were coming from all over in order to feel reinvigorated and recharged. What’s sad is that many of them had to drive, and drive so far.”

Knepp, a 3,500-acre ancestral estate in West Sussex, is not in a remote corner of Britain. Brighton and Worthing lie to the south, Gatwick Airport to the north, and the four-lane A24 roars alongside.

When in 1987 Charlie Burrell inherited the estate it was already loss-making. Efforts in the next decade to intensify arable and dairy failed, and in 2000 the couple took the momentous decision to sell the dairy herds and machinery. This cleared Knepp’s debts and enabled them to start the then highly controversial process of “rewilding” – or “handing it back to nature”.

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What happened next has thwarted the early critics and astounded even those who predicted success.

“In reality it was an economic decision,” Isabella says. “If farming had been making a profit for us we’d still be doing it. We’d be none the wiser.”

In practice rewilding involved the removal of drainage ditches and fences and leaving land fallow. Free-roaming deer, Exmoor ponies and Longhorn cattle were introduced along with Tamworth pigs. River margins returned to floodplains, arable fields grew over with blackthorn and brambles, and the landscape began its visible transformation.

It was being transformed in less visible ways too. “Pandora’s box opened in a very positive way,” says Isabella. “Biodiversity recovery addressed other issues like soil degradation and flood mitigation.

“We’ve gone from being a carbon emitter to a big carbon sink, doubling the carbon content in our soils. We’ve got microbe-and fungi-rich soils again and endangered species have returned to Knepp in numbers no-one would have hoped for.”

Among those is the turtle dove, whose UK population has declined 96% since the 1960s. First recorded at Knepp in 2007, that population is now a major UK stronghold for the species.

Another is the white stork, extinct as a nesting species in the UK for centuries following hunting and wetland destruction. By a combination of re-introduction and attracting vagrants, storks bred successfully at Knepp in spring 2020 – something ornithologists claim is a first for 600 years.

Thunberg, Attenborough, Extinction Rebellion: “There’s a groundswell”

Isabella’s book has attracted prizes and rave reviews and sold 215,000 copies. But its timing was lucky, she says, colliding as it did with a sudden rise in popular consciousness.

“We have David Attenborough talking powerfully about mass extinctions. We have Greta Thunberg, a plastics crisis, Extinction Rebellion out on our streets, and the climate crisis truly beginning to bite.

“There’s an impatience with economic systems and with politicians, because they are too short term. It’s a paradigm shift that’s coming from the ground up, rather than top-down from institutions. And it’s really kicked off in the past two years.”

The book has stirred interest far beyond nature-lovers and bird watchers, she says, “because it is a story of hope”.

“We have a personal story that goes from a dire situation to an enormously positive one. That’s what has excited people. Our inbox and our mailbag are heaving with notes from people who feel galvanised to do something. People who’ve got 100 acres, 20 acres, an allotment, a back garden – we even get questions from people who want to rewild window boxes.”

The term “rewilding” has itself been transformed. When the Knepp project began it was seen as eccentric and fringe, and “associated with the reintroduction of bears and wolves”. Now the concept has been embraced by the government, featured as a subplot on the Archers radio soap and spawned a movement among landowners not just across Britain but in Belgium, France, Holland and further afield.

“It’s not about going back to the past”

The post-war intensification of farming was particularly damaging, but poor farming has a long history, Isabella believes. “People who think that rewilding is retracing our footsteps in some way aren’t getting it quite right,” she says.

“It’s not about recovering the past. Civilisations throughout history have fallen due to the depletion of soils, and we’ve not learned the lessons. We’ve changed our landscape irreversibly and we must live with change. We’ve altered our water systems, our river courses, and we’ve profoundly changed the species we live among: we’ve introduced many and we’ve driven many to extinction.

“Looking ahead, what we can do with rewilding is use our knowledge of how ecosystems work. What are the triggers of biodiversity? What species and conditions can we bring together to allow nature to perform again?

“If we can learn to be less fearful about change and about the unexpected, and allow nature to perform, then we will see astonishing things begin to happen.”

Isabella’s optimism is inspiring: at her regular talks across the country she wins admiration and applause, even from sceptics. But she doesn’t see any easy road ahead. Popular support for nature causes isn’t necessarily matched by nations’ governments and institutions.

She thinks governments undermine their encouraging messages with a lack of concrete policy and spending commitment.

She wants to see rewilding of greenbelts and other open spaces, within and outside urban areas, giving people access to clean air and – crucially – creating wildlife corridors to enable species to cope with rising temperatures.

“At the current rate of warming, climate zones are moving north at a rate of 5km per year. Later on this century the conditions of Knepp will be up in the Scottish borders. Creatures that cannot fly are going to be in trouble.”

Knepp’s business feasibility: subsidies, income sources – and Brexit

After 17 years of intensive arable and dairy farming, undertaken at a loss, in 2000 Knepp sold up its stock and machinery, cleared its debts and set off in a new direction.

“We realised that to compete with the global market and also to comply with new regulations we were endlessly having to shell out more capital,” says Isabella. “And we could not afford to do that any more. It was making no sense.

“Farm subsidies enabled us to just about survive, and that wasn’t comfortable. Ironically almost 70% of our grain went to feed livestock rather than humans, so we’d been incentivised to grow the wrong things for the wrong reasons – and on the wrong land.”

The estate receives a range of basic and specific environmental subsidies under EU arrangements, and these have enabled the transition into rewilding.

“You shouldn’t get paid just for owning land. With Brexit on the horizon we hope that future subsidies will recognise landowners who are acting responsibly and providing public goods. Subsidies are going to be changed dramatically and farmers are going to have to change too.

“But nobody wants to be dependent on subsidies. It’s an unnerving position to be in.” Like many old estates Knepp is developing new income streams. One is eco-tourism, based largely on the transformation of the landscape, and including camping, glamping, farm stores and guided “safaris”.

Another is meat from the free-ranging Longhorn cattle. “We’re producing 75 tonnes a year, nothing compared to an intensive farmer, but there is no supplementary feeding or cost of buildings, and almost no carbon cost other than transport to market.” Currently sold to supermarkets, this will soon be marketed under a Knepp brand and butchered on the farm.


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