Rewilding is not an all or nothing concept and can thrive even alongside intensively farmed areas, according to one of its pioneers.
Many will be aware of the rewilding work of Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree at Knepp, transforming the 3,500-acre estate – which has been in the Burrell family for more than 200 years – into a wildlife sanctuary.
The benefits of rewilding for climate action are palpable – dramatic increases in wildlife and biodiversity, successful breeding of rare species, river restoration, flood mitigation, wetland creation, natural habitat and soil regeneration.
But how does Knepp make conservation pay, and is it feasible for everyone? Knepp struggled to make a profit for years when it was intensively farmed because it sits on heavy clay not conducive to modern methods. Having taken over from his grandparents in 1983, Charlie found it impossible to compete with larger, industrialised farms on better soils. However, following a meeting with Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera, author of Grazing Ecology and Forest History, Charlie had a change of heart.
Frans Vera’s theories explain the importance of large, free-roaming herbivores in the ecosystem, and how they drive the creation of new habitats. Return them to the landscape – in the right numbers – and nature responds in miraculous ways. Soils recover, vegetation becomes more complex and biodiversity rockets.
Giving nature the space to perform is the direction of travel, it's how we're going to secure a sustainable future for our grandchildren
The value of the carbon sequestered was £14.5m over 50 years, based on £5 a tonne.
Advice for rewilding
Charlie’s advice for other CLA members considering rewilding is to go and see it in action. He says:
"To build your vision you need to visit places and come up with your own ideas. Find people in your landscape in your area. There are extraordinary people with deep knowledge doing extraordinary things everywhere"
“We’re now making much more profit from tourism than we were on thousands of acres of arable and dairy; it’s extraordinary. In farming, we’re used to low margins, but we’re seeing a 20%-plus margin, which is a different world. “I was sceptical about tourism to start with, but we had no idea it would grow like this.”
A rewilding journey
The journey began in 2000 when the dairy herds and farm machinery were sold. In 2002, Knepp received Countryside Stewardship funding to restore the Repton Park in the middle of the estate – 350 acres that had been under the plough since the Second World War.
The restoration project made Charlie and Isabella look at the land differently and consider the possibility of rolling out nature conservation across the whole estate. Human management took a back seat, and nature did the driving, a process now known as rewilding.
In 2010, the Knepp Wildland project received Higher Level Stewardship funding, and Charlie says Knepp is now a leading light in the conservation movement, informing national policy on climate change mitigation and ecosystem services and galvanising a new approach to land management.
Oak, birch, field maple, crab apple, ash and wild service have naturally regenerated using thorny scrub – hawthorn, blackthorn, dogrose, gorse and brambles – as their nursery. Internal fencing has been removed, the old agricultural drainage systems destroyed, ditches have silted up and, with water now sitting on the Sussex clay, new wetlands have appeared.
Free-roaming herbivores wander the estate, with hardy breeds such as old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs that can survive outside all year round without supplementary feeding and artificial shelter. Fallow and red deer were added to the small number of roe deer already on the land. The only real intervention has been culling the herds to keep stocking densities low. This produces 75 tonnes (in live weight) a year of sustainable, ethical, pasture-fed organic beef, venison and pork.
With so few inputs, profits are significantly high. By selling to retail, revenues from Knepp’s ‘Wild Range’ meat are forecast to grow from £120,000 last year to £250,000 this year. They are aiming for £500,000 in 2022.
Other income streams include its tourism business, which turns over £800,000 a year through safari tours and glamping, which showcase to visitors how Knepp’s work is making a difference.
The climate impact
Charlie says: “A study by Bournemouth University, commissioned by Defra, calculated that the value of the carbon sequestered here was £14.5m over 50 years, based on £5 a tonne.
We have lots of scientists doing studies here, from Oxford, Cranfield, Exeter, St Mary’s University London, on everything from natural capital and carbon capture to soils and insects. It’s really exciting
“New treescapes and habitats are being formed, we have 10 times more Purple Emperor butterflies here than anywhere else in the UK, and we’re learning and re-learning. Life breeds life breeds life.”
Asked if it is possible for farms up and down the country to start rewilding, Charlie says: “Even intensive farms can think carefully about bleeding space for nature back into their landscapes. We shouldn’t spare land just for food production and not for life. To think of the wheat belt in England entirely without nature is bonkers. Studies show that having areas of nature around our crops improves yields and soil function, and provides a buffer against flooding, drought and extreme weather events.
Farmers and landowners are coming up with interesting initiatives to change our landscapes for the better, whether that’s rewilding, wildflower meadows, increasing hedgerow and tree cover or restoring natural water systems
“I feel very positive about it. We have lots of landowners visit us every year who between them have hundreds of thousands of acres, and they’re excited by new ideas, possibilities and futures. There are lots of unknowns, but we need to embrace that. Giving nature the space to perform is the direction of travel, it’s how we’re going to secure a sustainable future for our grandchildren.” Knepp’s future plans include allowing the Repton Park restoration to become ‘scruffier’ by reducing deer numbers, introducing beavers and perhaps one day bison, and working with neighbouring landowners to form nature corridors.
Climate action will remain at the heart of the work. “Animals and plants need to be able to respond to rising temperatures by moving through the landscape to reach suitable habitats. If we fail to create nature recovery networks, if we do nothing, we could see 50% of our existing species die off.”