When you wander around the six-acre Knepp estate in southeast England these days, it’s noisy – with insects buzzing, birds singing. It’s a huge contrast to the silence of other nearby areas that may look green and pleasant but are effectively biological deserts.
Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited Knepp farm from his grandparents in the 1980s. While it had been in the family for almost 200 years, the soil was wearing out and they soon faced both an existential economic crisis and an existential ecological crisis. They tried several solutions, selling off all their farm equipment and contracting with someone else to farm the land, before trying something completely different – letting the land go back to nature or “rewilding”, starting in 2001. No one had done it before in England and so it was a giant leap of faith, especially in a country where land had to be used so intensively for farming during the Second World War.
And now, as England faces the reality that it has only 100 harvests left before it no longer has topsoil to raise crops, their experiments are pointing the way to a new kind of agriculture – the kind Australians and Americans have been calling regenerative or restorative agriculture. In other words, farming doesn’t have to ‘take’ from the land; it can ‘give’, if we use nature’s land management strategies.
Knepp video on You Tube
These days, Knepp looks a lot like England probably used to look centuries ago, although they have had to adapt their strategies because animals like aurochs, the wild cattle once found in Asia, Europe, and North Africa, no longer roam the land. (Bison, which once were confused with aurochs, have been re-introduced in the Netherlands, and projects elsewhere are watching their progress with interest).
But especially living on a small area in a busy, highly populated area of England just 44 miles from London, Knepp is not trying to recreate the past. “All we’re trying to do really is to use tools that are available to us now in the environment in which we find ourselves, which is hugely transformed already by human impact,” Isabella explains.
They turned to animals that can live on the land year round without supplemental feeding – old breeds like the Old English Longhorn, hardy Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs (the closest they could get to wild boars), and fallow deer and red deer which joined the roe deer who already lived at Knepp. All of these animals effectively manage the landscape for them.
The rest of the insects, birds and animals at Knepp have made their own way to the farm, often providing surprising results. Knepp has 13 of the 18 breeding species of bats in the UK. Peregrine falcons nest in trees. Nightingales live in the hedgerows and thorny scrub, which turns out to be their preferred habitat, and turtle doves have returned, although nationwide the numbers of both have crashed.
“In what has become a glorious “mess”,” as the Guardian put it, “the animals live out in the open all year round and give birth unassisted by humans. Formerly common plants – but also rare ones – have returned in profusion, together with insects, bats and other organisms. Scrubland, wetland and other habitats are gradually rewiring themselves as herbicides and pesticides disappear.”
Not only has the land returned to fertility, Knepp’s revenues have turned around too. Their sales of culled pasture-fed beef, venison and pork, along with eco-tourism, has meant that the farm is now making money rather than losing it, as in the past.
That matters, because post-Brexit, English farmers who decide to follow their example won’t have access to various European Union funds that supported the experimentation at Knepp. They do, however, have the example of an approach that works, and these days, many landowners, farmers, policymakers and conservationists visit Knepp to see and learn how it’s done.
But even people who don’t want to make such a drastic change can contribute to creating more space for nature among the farmlands, says Isabella. Neighbours working together can create stepping stones or natural corridors that link natural spaces. Or an idea she calls ‘pop-up Knepps’ – rewilding a farm for a generation and then, once the soil has been restored and water cleaned, clearing the thorny scrub and returning to sustainable agriculture, having helped sequester carbon and provided habitat for insects, birds and wildlife. Old farming systems used to rotate the use of fields, leaving some fallow, and this is really just a different type of rotation, she says.
Knepp, and other rewilding projects in the UK, offer much hope that, with some help but largely left to its own devices, nature can thrive.
The extraordinary rewilding of Knepp Castle. House and Garden.
Isabella Tree – Rewilding an English Farm. Simons Foundation.
This farm in England is run by its animals. World Economic Forum.
Rewilding Scotland. Together TV.
From debt to diversity: A journey of rewilding, carbon capture and hope. Mongabay, Aug. 9, 2023
Other Rewilding Stories:
The Cornish farm that plans to last 1,000 years. The Guardian, Jul. 25, 2022.