An exciting rewilding project on 3500-acres of farmland at Knepp in Sussex has given new hope for the UK’s endangered species. This is a story about turtle doves, nightingales and other animals, and how they found themselves in a rewilding project on a medieval estate in England.
My Visit To Knepp Rewilding
A friend suggested I read Isabella Tree’s book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (Pan Macmillan), about the rewilding at Knepp in Sussex, and that’s how I found myself ankle-deep in sodden fields on the perimeter walk last weekend. It’s a groundbreaking book, full of stunning achievements – and a few challenges to perceived wisdom.
I had decided today would be a great day for a one-hour walk (an hour being close to my suburban-bred boredom threshold) in between the heavy showers we’ve been having. What I hadn’t predicted was, the previous week’s showers still hadn’t drained away, hence the muddy boots.
What’s Going On At Knepp?
Here in the UK and worldwide we are facing a catastrophic loss of wildlife and biodiversity, but there is nothing inevitable about this decline. And rewilding is an exciting idea that has the capacity to fix and even reverse many of our most entrenched environmental problems.
This is one of the most distressing statements I found in Isabella Tree’s book:
“The numbers of Britain’s most endangered species have more than halved since the 1970s, with one in ten species overall threatened with extinction within our shores.”
Ten per cent of all species threatened with extinction? Ten per cent? It’s hard to comprehend. What am I going to tell my grandchildren? Even since 1966 we have lost 40 million birds, according to the RSPB, and farmland birds have halved in the ten years since 2010. These are alarming, shameful facts.
More On My Knepp Rewilding Walk
It being Winter, and myself being anything but a nature spotter I probably missed 95 per cent of the wildlife present, although I did manage to identify several blackbirds on my rewilding walk. I also know what a robin looks like. Still, it was a lovely experience and there’s nothing more therapeutic than getting cold, wet and covered in mud.
I also love to discover little things like beetles and frogs. But sadly I’m not very good at finding frogs either. So Sue and I are saving up to treat ourselves to a Knepp Wildlife Safari, in the renewed hope of spotting one. Meanwhile I will thumb through my nature books over breakfast so I may better spot them.
How Did We Get To This Extinction Crisis?
Ten per cent of all species living in the UK are threatened with extinction. How on Earth did we get to this situation?
In word, farming. Intensive farming practices, leading to scrub clearance and the ploughing of pasture land have deprived wild creatures of their habitat and made it harder for them to survive. That coupled with the mass shooting of millions of birds every year in the case of the turtle doves, once a common sight in England, particularly in the Middle East.
We’ve lost tens of thousands of ancient woods since World War Two, and more than 75,000 miles of hedgerows. Up to ninety per cent of wetland has disappeared from England since the Industrial Revolution. Ninety-seven per cent of our wildflower meadows have gone – most ploughed up for agriculture and forestry.
It’s hardly surprising we’re in the middle of an extinction crisis. It’s a bit like burning someone’s house down and then wondering why they have nowhere to live.
Can rewilding help to reverse this shocking trend?
Too Little Farmland, Or Too Much?
I grew up believing that how Britain looked was how it had always looked – grimy cities surrounded by suburbs and then a patchwork quilt of farmland. But this quilt got a lot bigger during the Second World War. The ‘dig for victory’ campaign added 10,000 square miles to the land under plough in Britain.
Since then productivity has improved greatly. Contrary to what many people believe we now have a lot more land ‘under the plough’ devoted to farming than is needed to feed people.
When food supply outstrips demand the surplus has to be stored somewhere. So in the early 1980s Europe had a million-tonne ‘butter mountain’, not to mention its own ‘wine lake’. Great if you’re planning to hold a butter-and-wine party, otherwise …
Food Waste All Around Us
The problem is not lack of food supply, it’s us. We’re too wasteful. We’ve forgotten what “not” wasting food is. We’ve become food waste addicts, unable to recognise our own destructive habits. According to WRAP 9.5 million tonnes of food were wasted in the UK in 2018, 71% of this by households. Households waste around 15% of all food purchased. So there is plenty of room for projects like the rewilding at Knepp.
Seeing these figures I wonder how we haven’t noticed what is going on around us. Maybe it’s like the biscuit tin in our house. Every time I have a hot drink I go to the biscuit tin and grab two biscuits. Sue comes home to find the tin empty and asks me where all the biscuits have gone.
“Search me”, I say. “I only took two”.
The destruction and the waste are happening too fast for Nature yet somehow too slow for us humans to notice. It’s called ‘shifting baseline’. We somehow have to evolve into a species that not only notices what’s going on and cares, but shows it with effective action.
Progress at last for Knepp Rewilding!
The first turtle doves were recorded in Knepp Rewilding in the summer of 2007. Since then the rise in population, for an endangered species, has been impressive. Sixteen male turtle doves recorded in the summer of 2017.
By 2016 Knepp was hosting a most impressive 0.5% and 0.9% of the UK’s total population, from zero a few years previously. Although I never spotted any of them. To be fair it wasn’t their season – turtle doves arrive in late April and May, leaving again between July and September, according to RSPB.
Simply letting Nature take its own course (mostly), they are making new discoveries, challenging old established truths. Like the “fact” that nightingales are woodland birds. Not so, says Isabella. There is now growing evidence nightingales nest in a variety of places including brambles, heaps of debris and ivied walls.
The problem? Scientists, Isabella found, were simply ignoring the work of ornithologists of a previous era in favour of their own more recent research. Do we really know it all in this technological age of ours?
Rewilding – A Leap of Faith
Rewilding is largely a leap of faith, says Isabella. And it’s working. We trust in Nature and Nature comes up with the goods. Naturally! It always has. Is it time to take a leap of faith in other areas too? Maybe “faith” is exactly what we are lacking in our technologically-driven world. We think we can fix everything with technology – so why is so much in our world broken?
What draws me to rewilding is its logic in terms of the problem. We got into this mess essentially by shooting wild animals, poisoning creepy-crawlies, slandering them all as “pests” and removing their homes. How to put this right? Let’s reverse the process.
The Tamworth Sows
Public walks and bridleways pass around and through Knepp, and the owners are happy with this, although apparently some of the Tamworth sows are a bit over-friendly and in their exuberance may knock some of the walkers a little off-course. On my way in I saw some large sow-like creatures which I think might have been them.
Reconnecting with Nature
Rewilding confronts and corrects our alienation from Nature and even our fears around the most fundamental fact of life – death itself.
We have become alienated from the natural processes of decay and rejuvenation, and rewilding is a way to help restore it. Compare that natural process to the “death” created daily by chemical fertilisers. The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is an area of 6000 to 7000 square miles, caused by nutrient enrichment from the Mississippi River, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous. A major contributor to this is runoff from chemical fertiliser.
Zimbabwean ecologist Alan Savory estimates that restoring the world’s five billion hectares (19 million square miles) of degraded grasslands to functioning ecosystems could return ten or more gigatonnes of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually.
Nature – Friend Or Foe?
Over many generations we have come to see Nature as an enemy which much be vanquished. And as with any enemy, there is fear lying not far from the surface. We are afraid of the natural, the natural world.
Wilding challenges the orthodoxy that Britain was once covered in a dense canopy of tall trees, instead claiming that our natural landscape is closer to open woodlands. Having wondered for some time how English kings and their mates could travel through it at high speeds while hunting without hitting their heads all the time, everything suddenly begins to make sense to me.
It’s an important point, because if we are to return to a self-sustaining natural balance we need to know what we are hoping to return to.
The Financial Benefits Of Rewilding
Reverting arable land to scrub or woodland halves its value but there are other financial benefits. Rewilding at Knepp brings spin-offs, notably rural tourism, worth around £14 billion a year in England. In Wales, wildlife-based activity is a lucrative industry contributing more nearly £2 billion to the economy and walking brings in £500 million.
Then there are the grants and subsidies – which can lead to heated debates. Controversy recently erupted on the picturesque Isle of Skye after Scottish clan leader and landowner Hugh McCleod was awarded a grant of £1 million to plant 370,000 trees on his 42000-acres.
Winning Over The Locals
I would have thought anyone keen on conservation would be excited about a rewilding project in their midst, but the good people of Knepp initially had to get past a fair amount of opposition from local people, more used to seeing farmland that’s a bit tidier and without whopping great sows tromping around on it.
But the farmland Charlie Burrell inherited in 1987 was losing money from the start. Only after they had tried all they could to make it work did they come up with the idea of rewilding some of the land.
I can understand why farmers would be alarmed at such a threat to the status quo, and indeed their own status as (often struggling) producers. Plus the massive changes in land use predicted as a result of the UK Agriculture Act 2020.
Some Other Rewilding Projects
As well as the rewilding project at Knepp there are a number of other significant rewilding initiatives and some in the pipeline:
The Oostvaardersplassen project began in the 1970s and covers about 23 sq miles of land originally reclaimed from the sea in 1968. It is now part of Nieuw Land National Park and hosts 78 bird species including greylag and barnacle geese, spoonbill, cormorants, egrets, and several species of ducks. Proxy species were introduced in the mid-1980s to mimic the habits of the extinct wild auroch and tarpan species. In the 1990s red deer were added, along with 50 red foxes.
Yellowstone National Park
The Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative is 1,988 miles long and covers an area of 502,000 square miles. It is believed that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 has contributed to the restoration of the local ecology.
The Scottish Highlands
Danish fashion billionaires Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen are planning to launch a rewilding project on the 200,000 acres they own across Sutherland and the Grampian mountains in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a massive deal as they are among the biggest landowners in Scotland.
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Credits: Turtle Dove, Nightingale – RSPB; Purple Emperor – Björn S, Flickr; Tamworth Pig – Wikipedia; Fallow Deer – Kasper Rasmussen on Unsplash