A Sussex Castle Rewilded

Drive past the gatehouse and head up the private, single lane road towards Knepp Castle and you do feel a little like you have arrived on the set of Downton Abbey. Pastures studded with magnificent oaks flank the narrow roadway that leads you to the main house. The landscape on both sides conveys a deep sense of English history. The original tower, still standing on a mound on one edge of the 3,500 acre estate, was built by one of the supporters of William the Conqueror in the twelfth century. Over the intervening eight hundred years, a considerable checklist of English kings visited the estate to enjoy its ample hunting grounds. Pulling up to the stables (now largely converted to estate offices) at the back of the main house there are few clues that something radically different is going on here.

knepp2The current owners of the estate, Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree, are nudging the Knepp Estate on a trajectory that may represent part of the future of nature conservation in Europe. The heavy clay that dominates the soil in this part of the Sussex Weald had always made farming difficult. For centuries, these fields had served as a mediocre pasture for sheep and cattle. Only intensive efforts at drainage ever allowed for the few arable crops that came off this land to be successfully harvested. Without subsidies, the types of agriculture typically found in other parts of southern England were never very profitable at Knepp. In 2000, Charles and Isabella sold most of the farm machinery and started exploring a different direction for the lands under their care.

Knepp is one of Europe’s most prominent examples of a landscape undergoing the process of “rewilding.” Unlike the example of the Montana bison described in an earlier post, the type of rewilding being practiced at Knepp is not about bringing back particular keystone species to re-populate the landscape. Burrell and Tree are demonstrating a “process-led” version of rewilding in which the shackles are taken off the land and nature is left to develop more or less in the way it sees fit.

The approach is anchored in the hypothesis championed by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera that these lands would have largely been shaped by grazing animals since the last of the Pleistocene ice retreated. The grazers that nibble on the vegetation at Knepp today include a handful of native species and a motley assortment of introduced ones acting as proxies for extinct or otherwise unsuitable animals. Fallow and red deer have been reintroduced as important emblems of the historical fauna. Old English Longhorn cattle act as surrogates for extinct aurochs, while Exmoor ponies are ecological proxies for the missing tarpan. Tamworth pigs, a rare and rugged breed of domestic hog, are there to serve as an important agent of soil disturbance through their aggressive rooting of the forest floor.  Meanwhile, a few miles off the estate, wild boars are making a spontaneous recovery of their own across Southern England and may make their first appearance at Knepp within the next few years.

Practical considerations rule out certain species from making a return. The European bison, or wisent, is enjoying a modest resurgence after being reintroduced to certain parts of Europe (e.g., Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland). The wisent, however, is a poor candidate for Sussex because of the public access ‘right to roam’ laws and the probability of conflicts with pet dogs. It is also unlikely that Knepp will ever see wolves or bears again, though Burrell and his wife have high hopes that the European beaver will one day be shaping the hydrology of their estate. Knepp is already part of an ambitious effort to bring back the white stork. With the help of the Roy Denis Wildlife Foundation and the Warsaw Zoo, they recently started keeping a handful of these striking birds on their land in order to lure their wild brethren bypassing the UK on their overhead migrations into dropping by and perhaps staying a while and breeding.

But for the most part, Knepp is undergoing a more spontaneous transition. Rather than attempt to recreate a particular version of the past, Burrell (who also serves as chairman of Rewilding Britain) is content to follow a wait-and-see approach. If the habitat is left alone to develop its own ecological dynamics, rewilders are convinced that good things will happen. And what has happened at Knepp over the last decade makes it clear that letting nature find its own way can reap huge rewards.

The emerging landscape is proving to be a welcoming home for all five species of UK owls, the largest purple emperor butterfly population in the country, and thirteen of the UK’s seventeen species of breeding bats. It hosts the high drama of peregrine falcons while simultaneously becoming one of the turtle dove’s and the nightingale’s most important nesting sites. Ravens, red kites, sparrowhawks, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, lapwings, yellowhammers and woodcock also happily breed there. A profusion of insects fills the summer evenings with sound.

jacek-ulinskiThe project at Knepp Estate veers clear of more typical approaches to environmental protection. Unlike conservation projects such as the reintroduction of California condors and the protection of the Florida panther, management strategy at Knepp is for the most part laissez-faire. Where a particularly valuable species (like the white stork) might be able to take up residence, the estate managers are happy to occasionally intervene and provide the services necessary to help the animal get established. More often, however, the land is its own manager. Even if those who work at Knepp are loosely informed by a sense of what might have emerged as the Pleistocene warmed up into the Holocene, there is no attempt to recreate any particular landscape. There are no fixed goals based on what restorationists call “historical fidelity.” The approach towards rewilding practiced at Knepp is described as “sitting on your hands, with no expectations, and seeing what turns up.”

The whole thing is a slightly disorienting experience for an English eye more accustomed to landscapes grazed into submission by sheep and cows. Fields left alone for close to a decade are playing out the age-old battle between vegetative succession and animal disturbance in front of your eyes. Getting this ecological balance right is why, in the absence of major predators, Knepp harvests about seventy five tonnes of organic wild meat annually, providing a useful supplement to an income stream that also includes eco-tourism and weddings.

But in this unlikely experiment taking place less than fifty miles from London just off the A24, something is clearly going right. In addition to the multitude of feathered, furry, and articulated species that have walked, flown, and crawled their way back onto this welcoming landscape, the vegetation itself is starting to take on a peculiar from. As Vera predicted, under the pressure of grazing, a complex habitat mosaic is emerging, a mixture of grasses, scrub, thickets, and a few scattered trees.

You feel a bit foolish saying it out loud when you are standing in the middle of rural England, but there is no doubt what this emerging landscape reminds you of. Here in Sussex, under cloudy skies and mild temperatures, you catch a glimpse of the scrubby shape of an African savannah….a landscape in which free-roaming herbivores in their timeless battle with vegetation are once again largely calling the shots.

Fallow deer by Jacek Ulinski

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