Knepp Estate: who controls and benefits from rewilding?

A sow and piglets root around in the grass.
A lifeline for turtle doves? Tamworth pig sow and piglets feeding at Knepp Estate. Photo credit: Ross McNally.

Most wildlife lovers in Britain will by now have been enchanted by the world-famous rewilding project at Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex. The project began in 2001 when the owners of the 3,500 acre estate, Sir Charles Burrell and his wife, the author Isabella Tree, conceded defeat in their long fight to make their farm profitable and, over the subsequent decade or so, turned their land instead into one of the most successful sites for biodiversity in the country.

After fencing separate blocks of the estate, they released English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, and red and fallow deer to roam freely through these blocks as proxies for wild herbivores extinct or missing from the landscape, to graze, browse, trample and dung their way through the site. They then stepped back and let natural processes take over; this is partly what differentiates a rewilding approach from traditional management-driven conservation.

Wildlife explosion at Knepp

The result was an explosion of life, including many rare species. Knepp is now among Britain’s last outposts for turtle doves, a red-listed bird that has declined by over 93 per cent since 1994. Ecologists have suggested that this particular success may be linked to the rootling of the pigs churning up bare soil, which can then be colonised by low-growing plants, whose seeds are core food sources for the turtle doves.

Hedges, released from annual cutting, ballooned in width and, together with the recolonisation of fallow fields by scrub, created more favourable nesting sites for nightingales, another red-listed bird. More recently, Knepp has overseen the first fledging chicks of reintroduced white storks in Britain since the 15th century, and is in the process of reintroducing beavers. Whether for bats, butterflies, beetles, bracket fungi or earthworms, it’s an oasis, thanks partly to the crucial ecological roles of large herbivores.

Knepp’s success remains fragile

However, the very notability of Knepp’s success also highlights the precariousness and limitations of relying on broad-minded individual landowners as a model for rewilding.

Knepp is currently contending with a proposed housing development on its doorstep. The prospective site at Buck Barn directly flanks the north-eastern edge of Knepp and would cut it off from an important wildlife corridor to St. Leonard’s Forest. Despite growing opposition to development on greenfield land in general, and local campaigning in this case, the proposal is viewed favourably by Conservative-led Horsham District Council.

The fact that Thakeham Homes, the private developer proposing the site, has donated over £500,000 to the Conservative Party since 2017 and boasts of its access to ministers is purely coincidental.

As the bulldozers loom, it’s worth stepping back and asking why Knepp remains such a rare gem, and why, even without this threat from developers, its success is fragile.

Most land surrounding Knepp consists either of villages, such as Shipley, West Grinstead and Southwater, or private farmland. In her book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Isabella Tree describes how in 2003, with their wildland in its infancy, she and her husband invited 50 neighbouring landowners to a day of presentations at Knepp, hoping to attract interest in expanding the project over a much wider area.

Yet the mere mention of tidy Sussex fields reverting to scrub and wetland was met with an eruption of ‘dissident murmuring and shaking of heads’. She later highlights in more detail the complaints from some neighbours, with a theme decrying the ‘wasteland’ that Knepp has become. So, despite recognising the need for conservation to pursue the mantra of Professor Sir John Lawton’s 2010 report to Defra, for ‘bigger, better and more joined up’ habitats, Knepp remains to this day an isolated speck on the map. This puts stringent spatial limitations on the scale and ambition of the project.

Land ownership inequality: who benefits?

This reaction demonstrates that while some private landowners may be sufficiently adaptable and forward thinking to dedicate their land for environmental benefit, most cannot be relied upon to change their mindset and put nature first.

It is Britain’s increasingly concentrated and unaccountable land ownership that is partly responsible for decimating our ecosystems in the first place.

Turreted Knepp Castle framed by trees and a flat expanse of grass
Aristocratic rewilding. Knepp Castle viewed from the footpath. Photo credit: Ross McNally

Even environmentally minded landowners like the Burrells can raise questions around how rewilding is done, who gets a say in it and who can enjoy the results. For example, if the Burrells decided, hypothetically, that they too wanted to sell up to property developers, they would be perfectly entitled to do so, and Knepp’s oasis would go up in smoke.

Just over a year ago, while everybody (except government staffers) was cooped up for Christmas 2020 under COVID-19 restrictions, Tree wrote an article for The Guardian expressing unease that the high volumes of people flocking to the countryside after the first lockdown ended had put great pressure on nature.

While these concerns had some merit, for a landed aristocrat to lament that the plebs are frightening the wildlife and won’t stick to the footpaths seems a little tone deaf (especially given that Knepp Estate hosts the Opening Meet of the Crawley & Horsham Hunt). Again, the often damaging concentrations of public footfall into wildlife sites during the pandemic are partly an artefact of private landownership.

For example, Tree rather briskly brushes over the fact that the public only has access to eight per cent of England, which may help explain why Knepp was a tad crowded that summer. Similarly, returning to the Buck Barn issue, complaints about the development of housing on Knepp’s border are somewhat undermined when they come from somebody who lives in a castle.

Democracy for the environment

For all Knepp’s inspiring and valuable lessons for rewilding, which should be staunchly defended against threats, there are limits to how much we can rely on the whims of beneficent private landowners as a wider model.

Projects run by public bodies, charities or local communities, like the Mar Lodge Estate in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park – owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland – or the community owned Tarras Valley Nature Reserve on land purchased last year from the Duke of Buccleugh after a monumental fundraising campaign, are arguably a more sustainable, democratic and engaging way forward.

Nature is not a private garden for the few, but a public good. The public should be at the centre of restoring and enjoying it.

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