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Knepp Wildland Project
Trees, young and old, spring out of the ground through tangles of thorn bushes which protect the saplings from hungry mouths.
Hedgerows, relics of fences long gone, border fields filled with flowers. Walking along a track, clouds of grasshoppers leap out of the way.
Woodlands of oak ring with bird song and for a moment, appearing out of the unmanaged scrub, a herd of fallow deer appears, silent, watchful, before disappearing noisily into the bushes.
Tamworth sows roam freely followed by litters of tiny, browny-redish piglets dashing and leaping and rolling each other over in the leaf litter and massive Longhorn cattle with wide, curved horns doze lazily amongst countless butterflies and wildflowers.
An electric blue flash of a kingfisher taking flight into a tree. In the evening, Pipistrelle and Noctule bats flit silently under the stars and now and again a Daubenton skims the surface of the lake, picking insects off the water with its feet. Nightingale alarm calls echo through the evening silence.
My trip to the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex was an awakener to what our countryside would once have looked like and to what it could look like.
The 3,600 acres of the project hums with life that has returned to the rewilded farm.
Knepp was an intensive farm for many decades but, deep in debt and the thick clay ground making farming extremely difficult, owners Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell decided they needed a change.
That was just under 20 years ago and now the farm is almost unrecognisable. Isabella and Charlie took out all the inner fences then let it go wild.
Unlike many conservation bodies who would have strategically managed the farm to what they thought would best benefit the wildlife, Isabella and Charlie Tree firmly sat on their hands and waited.
Their waiting and firm resolution to not interfere has paid off. Knepp now has 20 male singing turtle doves and one of the biggest colonies of purple emperor butterflies in the UK.
They have nightingales, peregrine falcons, all five owl species, the first breeding white storks the United Kingdom has had in centuries and 13 out of the UK’s 18 bat species.
They brought in domesticated animals – Tamworth pigs, Old English Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies – to mimic the behaviour and ecological role large wild herbivores would have played in the British countryside.
Knepp makes more profit from their camping, safaris and organic, semi-wild, pasture-fed meat than they would have made as an intensive working farm.
The project is proof that nature and farming can go hand in hand. The hardest part is convincing people rewilding is not against people but can benefit everyone.