At 6.30 am On August 6, I was fortunate to accompany 12 local farmers and land managers on a bus. We drove the 5 hour jouney to Knepp Estate in Sussex on a bus.
Knepp Castle Estate comprises 3,500 acres of heavy weald clay in West Sussex. Though farmed intensively since WW2, the farm rarely made a profit. Rewilding has turned this around. Knepp has attracted support from Natural England through the Higher Level Stewardship scheme. And its focus on rewilding has prompted successful spin off enterprises. The farmland is now profitable.
From the start, the project benefitted from the vision of an influential advisory group. This included the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera and CEO of Sussex Wildlife Trust, Tony Whitbread
Knepp Wildland’s ethos is to allow natural processes rather than aiming for any particular goals or outcomes. Free-roaming grazing animals - cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - drive this process-led regeneration. They act as proxies for herbivores that would have grazed the land thousands of years ago. Their different grazing preferences help create a mosaic of habitats from grassland and scrub to open-grown trees and wood pasture.
Charlie Burrel, the estates owner, decided in 2001 to start the process of re-wilding. The hedges, fields and woodland were to be left alone; unmanaged and leaving nature to its own devices. There is minimal managment or interference from humans. There are 360 cows and their calves, roe deer and fallow deer have been introduced and also a few Tamworth pigs.
When we arrived on our bus at 11.30 on a very hot sunny morning we were greeted by the estates ecologist , who was to be our guide for the day ..
We had a talk for an hour , then lunch; lovely burgers and salad all produced from the estate.
After lunch we were shown around the estate on safari to actually witness the process. We didn't see many animals . It was too hot. We saw some fallow deer and birds but we did see amazing habitat and the actual process of succession i.e Nature returning the land to its ultimate goal. Oak Forest.
Wildlife has returned with an abundance
The wildlife figures are astounding with Turtle Doves and Nightingales returning Rare butterflies and more common species the numbers have rocketed
Although being a farmer, even a pasture for life farmer, it was difficult to watch the process without angst i.e the acres and acres of fleabain and ragwort and pasture being under utilised. But as a farmer and one that has diversified a lot I could see that the end result for wildlife is going to be important in future projects of this type.
There is a lot of research going on into the impact of climate change on wildlife habitats. The contribution of Knepp to this debate will be crucial for our future as custodians of the countryside.
You may ask as to why I would want to see this? What relevance does this visit have for West Town Farm? Has it influenced me?
Many of us who were on the bus were interested in Turtle Dove habitat. They have been heard in this area. We know they are struggling. their numbers have plummeted by 95% in 40 years. At present rates they will be extinct by 2050. Their numbers are already under threat from other sources before they even get here; from hunters in Europe that trap them; from climate change ; from habitat loss in their winter homes. and from ever increasing desertification. All these factors make their journey here perilous.
As migrants visiting our shores for a few weeks between the end of April and mid August they are here for 1 reason . To breed. So why here. Because they make use of our longer days so that they can hunt for the food to feed their chicks.
Their preferred habitat is large hedgerows, mainly blackthorn. This provides safety from predators.; they need water close by eg a stream or pond. West Town and its neighbours have this habitat in small pockets so it could be possible to enhance this habitat.
As a farmer, responsible for 250 acres there are areas at West Town that are unproductive and could be habitat for rare species. Where we go from here though is uncertain both here at West Town and across the nation.