The Knepp Estate
letter from a small corner of far away
by William Castle of Shropshire, England
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Last week we drove to the south of England to visit somewhere I have been wanting to see for a few years. The place started out as a farm, or a number of farms to be precise, on an estate which goes back hundreds of years to a deer hunting forest, there being a castle there once, later replaced by a grand house with its environs landscaped in the eighteenth-century manner of ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton, with mature trees dotted about a close-grazed deer park. But it was not the Stately Home that interested me, but the fields, once intensively arable cropped or intensively grazed by dairy cattle, but which, for the last couple of decades, have largely been left to their own devices. The reasons for this abandonment, though to call it that is unfair, were twofold, the owners’ interest in nature and the inability for them to make a living from the farm, despite doing all the ‘right’ things, specialising, getting bigger, increased inputs, contracting out the arable work, all the things the farming advisors, universities, chemical companies and policy makers thought it right to do. But it was not working, and through the 1990s it was working increasingly badly, so they sold the cows, the milk quota, the tractors and machinery, everything, and paid off their huge debts.
At that time, the European Union, who were the body deciding agricultural policies, were pushing for increased production and cheaper food on one hand but also running a Countryside Stewardship scheme to reverse the results of their other policies, at least on some land. The old Deer Park fell into that category and received funding for reseeding and fencing before being restocked with deer and cattle, but we went to see a different area, isolated from the Deer Park by a road. Here the farming just stopped, the last crop of wheat or whatever was removed, and from then on, the vegetation could go its own way. For a period of four years nothing was done, there was no livestock added, not until high fences were erected when red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and a few Tamworth pigs were introduced to recreate, as far as possible, the type of grazing pressure that would have been there thousands of years ago. And then they stood back and watched, sometimes adjusting the livestock numbers with the animals’ welfare being and the capacity of the area in mind, because without wolves or bears, there was nothing to keep the numbers in check.
As the fields were taken out of production, the weeds spread, then brambles appeared in the arable fields, along with tiny tree saplings, many of which were eaten by the livestock. But where the trees started growing amongst the thorny patches of bramble, hawthorn or blackthorn, the grazers were kept away by the thorns, the trees continued to grow, so those trees, particularly willow and oak, are now overtopping the protective barrier of thorns and the height of browsers’ mouths. In another ten years, I imagine that some of the oaks will be thirty feet tall or more and will have shaded out their thorny nursemaids. The interesting aspect of this experiment is that there was no plan, there was no intention of managing the land through direct human actions to encourage particular species, but nonetheless the increase in numbers of many species has been marked, including rarities such as the nightingale, turtle dove and Purple Emperor butterflies, species that were common a hundred years ago but have plummeted in the last fifty years.
I read all this in Isabella Tree’s book ‘Wilding,’ but I wanted to see it myself, so we booked ourselves on a morning tour with one of the resident naturalists. This was a good move, since besides explaining the processes and the thinking behind the project, he took us off the beaten track to see parts where we otherwise couldn’t go, and with his well-tuned ear, he could locate different birds before seeing them, so although it was not my first time to see a kingfisher, I wouldn’t have seen it without him, and it was the first time I had seen a young one begging its parent for food. One bird it was hard to miss, were the storks. For us Brits, the stork is only seen on cards, ‘Congratulations on the arrival of your new baby’ drawn with a baby hanging in a cloth from its beak. For us, the stork is an animal of far away, of fairy stories and of legend, so when I lived in Germany when I was in my early twenties, I could scarcely believe my eyes seeing them nesting on farmhouse roof tops in the drained but still-damp peatlands north of the city. To find them on this island is another surprise, for they have only just been reintroduced after being wiped out 600 years ago. And what a fine bird they are, standing over three feet high and with a wingspan of twice that, a dozen swirling round and round, catching the thermals, practising in readiness for their migration to Africa. Despite their magnificence, the reintroduced storks are not really the core of the project, which is to see how the landscape develops under the influence of large herbivores. In some areas, however, there seemed to be little change, the damp low lying pastures looking pretty much like other places where the grazing pressure is low, except for the hedges which have grown up into trees, with holes punched through by the animals. I had also expected to see less delineation of the former field boundaries, but some of the former arable fields still looked like fields, except with weeds and self-sown grass instead of wheat or barley, with some areas grazed down tight. But parts of other fields had changed into scrub, some full of sallow [goat willow], resembling areas I have only seen in secluded Welsh valleys and in Norway, whereas other fields were more like the bush of East Africa, at least what I know of it from TV.
In a country that has lost huge numbers of many species during my lifetime, the reversal of this trend on the Knepp Estate is hugely important. But for someone with a farming background, the project is challenging; having been brought up with the value of producing food and of managing the land, seeing it ‘going to waste’ is difficult. Add to that the proliferation of weeds, particularly the ragwort [known in the US as tansy ragwort] which is toxic to all animals, and the brain strains to cope with the juxtapositions of good things and bad. Or are they bad? Admittedly, it has been a good year for ragwort [a bad year for those who do not want it], and in time, I am sure it will diminish as other plants gain a stronger foothold. But seeing the former pastureland, I ask myself whether it might have been better to establish grass first before ‘letting it all go,’ or perhaps a weak stand of grass mixed with other native plants, or whether different regimes of conversion might have been more effective, perhaps the soil should have been in better heart first, with a higher organic matter content? In time, I am sure other projects will try different approaches, but perhaps that is not the point. The point is that the Knepp Estate is pioneering, they are trying it, and something is obviously working, although perhaps not everything as you might wish. But that is also the point, because we don’t know how to rewild, we don’t really know what a wild Britain was like, or could be like, even in small pockets. We don’t even know what conditions various species prefer because the baseline data was already skewed by people’s activity when the textbooks were written. So it is one big experiment, but fortunately it has generated enough interest and excitement that the changes are being studied in detail.
All around the Knepp Estate, in Sussex and elsewhere in the southeast, including around the converted cart shed where we stayed, the fields have been drying up through the lack of water; the day after we left a hosepipe ban was imposed, and on one evening walk we spotted a dairy herd crowding around a couple of ring feeders in a field where the grass was the colour of sand, a rare phenomenon in Britain, and elsewhere some trees were starting to show the effects of the drought. In the late afternoon we went back to Knepp and walked around again, when we got to see the Exmoor ponies, and, in the last few minutes, the cattle and the fallow deer grazing contentedly. As we drove away, we passed a barn just outside the rewilded zone which operates as a livery yard, with its field, neatly divided by electric tape into rectangular paddocks, each one containing a horse. There were no droppings to be seen, that had all been picked up, and the horses all looked healthy and were kept safely away from damaging each other, a tidy well-managed horse environment; the British Horse Society would give it top marks, I imagine.
But to me, especially after being amongst the willow scrub, under the old oaks and next to the pond where the kingfishers live, this was a desolate and forsaken scene, as flat as a bowling green, but without the green, just yellow remains cropped to within an inch of its life, with no shade for the horses to shelter under, no companionship, nothing to eat, nothing to rub on, nothing to do, nowhere to go.
We got home a little late, delayed by an accident on the motorway, to the relative green of Shropshire. The horses were waiting near the gate, in the shade of next door’s unruly alder, hawthorn and hazel hedge, near the corner where I planted some goat willow and hazel a couple of years ago. As I walked over towards the barn to close off access to fresh grass where I cut hay in June [they’ll get a bit more tomorrow] and then to the opposite corner to give them some other grass which is stalky by comparison, I was struck by how verdant it was, not just in contrast to the southeast, but also to some of the fields nearby, but perhaps that is due to my use of a sickle bar mower, their hay fields always looking scalped after their high speed mowing? Or is it to do with the grazing and cutting regime? I don’t know. But I do know that with access to the track around the periphery the horses can always move, they always can find shade from the heat, but I wonder, should I plant some more willow, hazel or thorn trees for them to hide behind, to browse, to rub against? Or perhaps let them into the wood sometimes, though I would have to protect the apple trees? Or should I allow some area to be recolonised by brambles and trees, and turn them in after a while, or use the electric fence, not to evenly graze the area, but to allow scrub to emerge in places? I don’t know, but it might be interesting.
Take care, William