Knepp Estate: the Low Weald wilderness that inspired the UK’s ‘rewilding’ movement

Photo credit: Knepp Wildland

Right on our doorstep in the Sussex Low Weald, a thriving wilderness of former farmland has had amazing success in restoring rare wildlife and biodiversity. Situated just 16 miles from Gatwick airport, the 3,500-acre Knepp Estate has garnered international recognition for its pioneering approach to conservation over the two decades since its inception and is credited with inspiring the UK’s ‘rewilding’ movement − yet it’s a place that remains undiscovered by many Sussex locals. 

In 2001, after years of difficult and loss-making intensive farming, the owners embarked on a bold and pioneering conservation plan: to restore their over-farmed, clay-heavy land by allowing nature to take over, creating a functioning, self-sustaining ecosystem. They started with Repton Park, a 350-acre area in the centre of the estate that had been ploughed continuously since World War II. Within a few years, and following the restoration of natural watercourses and the introduction of wild grazing animals such as deer, pigs and other free-roaming herbivores, a range of biodiverse wildlife was flourishing in this new haven, including endangered bird species. Knepp is currently the only place in Britain where the number of rare turtle doves is increasing, with 16 singing males at the last count. Visitors fill the estate each spring to hear the arrival of nightingales, and earlier this year Knepp hosted the first UK hatching of white stork chicks in the wild for centuries, to the great joy of their rewilding team and British conservationists. 

The Knepp experiment is different to traditional eco-conservation because it is not driven by specific targets but is ‘process-led’, giving nature the freedom to develop organically, according to the owners Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree, also the author of Wilding, a book about the Knepp journey. “What we have done here,” she explains, “is just taken our hands off the steering wheel and let nature take over”. Their approach was inspired by Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera who began rewilding a Dutch polder in the 1980s and whose groundbreaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History was translated into English in 2000. But the Knepp vision of creating a ‘biodiverse wilderness area’ didn’t happen easily or overnight − it took almost a decade, and overcoming some opposition, to attract the necessary level of government funding in 2010. Since then, their continued success has revolutionised nature conservation.

Knepp has produced an astonishing array of wildlife successes in a relatively short space of time, thereby showcasing viable solutions for contemporary environmental problems, such as soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, pollinating insects and absorbing carbon emissions. The project has also introduced the concept of ‘wildlife corridors’ − linking up different rewilding sites with a vision of creating a UK-wide network, so that animals, birds and insects can move safely and naturally between areas, encouraging greater genetic diversity and helping populations to respond to the pressures of pollution and climate change. 

Visited by major conservation organisations as well as policymakers, farmers and landowners, Knepp has helped to change the whole mindset of UK nature conservation, stimulating the UK’s now-burgeoning ‘rewilding’ movement. Charlie Burrell is also on the board of trustees for the charity Rewilding Britain, which was formed in 2015 to support farmers, landowners and community groups who want to put rewilding into practice, and which aims to rewild 300,000 acres across the UK.  

Knepp Estate is also open to the general public, and every visit helps raise awareness and support their ongoing work. In addition to day trips and their popular Wildlife Safari tours, the Sussex wilderness offers longer-stay options too, such as camping, glamping, or even the chance to rent a private treehouse. Online donations to Knepp, and to other rewilding projects, can also be made via the biodiversity crowdfunding page letsrewild.org

For those self-isolating or unable to travel, why not try some personal rewilding in your own back yard? A Royal Horticultural Society spokesman on BBC’s Springwatch recently advised: “Take a more relaxed approach to gardening. Let your lawn grow wild, relax about weeding and connect with your neighbours.” This ‘hands-off’ approach might shock some, but could appeal to reluctant gardeners or those too busy to mow the lawn, as it allows more time to enjoy other things, including the simple pleasure of watching nature in action.

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