Biosciences at Brighton

University of Brighton biosciences blog

free roaming animals sign at Knepp Estate

Wilding – a story of hope in conservation

Ella Scott, who is studying Ecology and Conservation BSc(Hons) tells us about a recent talk by Isabella Tree about rewilding Knepp Castle Estate.

On the other side of the South Downs, approximately 20 miles from Brighton University, something unique has been unfolding over the last twenty years, at Knepp Castle Estate. I had the pleasure of attending Isabella Tree’s talk on 19th November in which, she passionately shared the results of the project thus far.

In 1999, Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, decided to stop intensive farming and begin the Knepp Wildland project. Catalysed by the growing economic afflicting farmers and a new found understanding of the decreasing quality of soil and the consequences on the estate’s ancient oaks, Burrell and Tree decided to return the estate to nature and reintroduce ancient native grazers to the land. Acting as their ancient ancestors, Old English long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, roe deer, fallow deer, red deer and Tamworth pigs were introduced to Knepp. By doing so, natural succession process has gradually created a diverse range of niches and habitats. They are also in the process of receiving permission to introduce European Bison and European beavers to the estate.

The combination of grazers and browsers, their selective feeding, differing diets and behaviour have transformed Knepp. Grazing prevented the succession into shrub and woodland, whilst creating openings for wild flowers to colonise and fill the landscape with a kaleidoscope of colours. Consequently, invertebrate abundance and diversity boomed, and the long-forgotten hum of insects from the farmland returned, bringing violet ground beetles, dung beetles, the aggressive and territorial purple emperor butterfly and many more. Soon after the songs of nightingales and turtle doves were once again heard on the estate. As well as the return of ravens to Knepp, the first seen in the area for a hundred years.

‘One walks a summers eve, the feeling of comfort amongst the buzzing, humming and drumming… A sense of biophilia…’ – Isabella Tree

After sharing with us what a brilliant success Knepp has been in sustaining such high biodiversity and supporting complex communities. Tree discussed how these ideals can be translated to the rest of the UK. The estate has attracted curious farmers and land owners from all over the globe, and Knepp is becoming an example of how we can support nature, inspiring others to consider more sustainable and beneficial ways of land use. Particularly, in an area which was so intensively managed in the past, there is renewed hope.

Tree went on to describe the British landscape as it could be, with lush wildlife corridors, land bridges and wider hedgerows connecting multiple biodiversity hot spots and smaller sites. Alongside the transformation of our agricultural system by introducing regenerative farming, agroforestry and silvopasture. Additionally, Tree advocated ceasing the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and ploughing.

An optimistic and successful example of conservation in practice. Tree concluded the talk with plans for the future, an elegant and poignant observation, ‘it’s about rewilding ourselves!’- Tree.

For more information on the Knepp wildland project, the talk is available on the Brighton Natural Health Centre’s YouTube channel. Additionally, Tree’s book ‘Wilding’ provides details on the history of the estate, as well as detailed insight into the process of returning Knepp to nature and the decisions that have shaped the development of Knepp. Lastly, I recommend visiting and seeing for yourself, take advantage of our close proximity to such a current and influential initiative.

Stephanie Thomson • February 25, 2020

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