Back in 2000, Charlie Burrel and Isabella Tree, who live in Knepp Castle in the UK, took the radical decision to give up on the estate’s arable and dairy farm, which they had tried and failed for years to keep profitable, to pursue an experimental process of habitat creation. They laid off 11 staff, removed 70 miles of internal fences and introduced English Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and fallow and red deer to roam freely. Cultivation of the land was stopped over a period of six years and the transformation was dramatic — the landscape changed from monotonous fields to grass plains, copses and scrubland, harboring a rich diversity of plant, insect and bird life — and public interest bloomed.
Selling was not an option, but the couple’s decision to cease farming coincided with the English publication of Grazing Ecology and Forest History by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, in which he argues that Europe was not historically a closed-canopy forest but a dynamic landscape shaped by roaming megafauna including oryx and wild boar. It inspired them to recreate the grazing effects of these animals — which in turn encourage plant and insect life — by releasing semi-wild animals. “If you release free-roaming animals into an area, give them enough space and freedom on a big enough scale, you can generate habitat that will be of benefit — rocket fuel, in fact — to biodiversity,” Tree explains.
Burrell says many farmers are too distracted by the challenge of making a living to consider alternatives. “When I was farming, all you ever thought about was your margin per hectare, and nature was irrelevant; it was just trying to struggle through, trying to keep the show on the road.”
Fourteen years ago, the dense vegetation around us was a wheat field. Today, there is a rich carpet of grasses under our feet and speckled wood butterflies drift between the sallow leaves that provide the perfect habit for purple emperor butterflies. “We had no idea we would become the greatest site for purple emperor butterflies in the country,” Burrell says. “The record last year was 143, and that was the biggest [number] anyone has ever recorded in a day in Britain. This year it was 388.”
The regeneration that started with the soil has worked upwards: as well as 19 species of earthworm, Knepp now attracts all five species of UK owls, 13 out of 18 species of UK bats and growing (and breeding) populations of migratory nightingales and turtle doves. These are uplifting figures but, according to Burrell and Tree, it is the speed of transformation that offers real hope for the future of the British countryside. “I’m not saying this is going to be a solution to a lot of situations but it’s an option that has bubbled to the surface,” Burrell says. “It now holds a position of strength and interest, because you can have a very positive story after 10, 20 years, for nature — and that was believed to be impossible.”
Turtle doves are the most likely bird to go extinct within our shores in the next 10 to 15 years,” Tree says, “but just a year or two into the rewilding project, we started to hear them at Knepp.” It is thought to be the only place in the UK where their numbers are rising. “There’s nothing more magical than listening to their gentle soothing purring in the thickets,” she adds, “it’s the sound of summer resurrected.”
Watch video about Knepp Wilding
The Knepp Estate has become a popular destination for weddings, events, camping and safaris.
Excerpted from a piece by Laura Battle, deputy editor of FT’s House & Home
Photos by Alexander Christopher Fleming