In May 2022, the JTP Partners set out to discover more about the concept and practice of rewilding by going on a walking safari at Knepp Castle Estate, Sussex. In this piece, JTP Partner, Charles Campion reflects on the visit and discusses how the hands-off conservation approach seeks to let nature lead the way by allowing natural processes and wildlife to flourish.
JTP has a long track record of working to create socially, economically and environmentally sustainable places. The scope of our services extends from the city to the building, encompassing everything in between. Many of our projects incorporate large areas for nature restoration from the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, to The Green Quarter, Southall, which is currently on site. Our Garden Community projects will typically retain over 50% of the site area as green space so there is considerable potential for nature restoration and rewilding. We work closely with landscape architects, hydrologists and ecologists to integrate the design and use of green and blue infrastructure to deliver healthy, accessible landscape for people to enjoy whilst creating rich, biodiverse environments for nature. It was for this reason that we wanted to see for ourselves Knepp and all its wonders.
Knepp Estate is one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects in the UK, and indeed in Europe. If we can bring back nature at this scale and pace just 16 miles from Gatwick Airport, we can do it anywhere. I’ve seen it. It’s truly wonderful, and it fills me with hope.
Professor Sir John Lawton, “Making Space for Nature” report to Government
Rewilding at Knepp
Knepp has become a cause celebre of rewilding - a movement that had been growing slowly over the last decades but was given huge impetus by the publication of “Feral” by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2013). Rewilding, the restoration of an area of land to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated by the direct or indirect consequences of human activity), is now a cornerstone of the Government’s agricultural and environmental policies.
After many years of loss-making farming at Knepp, landowners Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree came to the realisation that, due to the heavy clay soil, the land was not conducive to modern intensive farming. In 2000, the decision was taken finally to sell the dairy cows and farm machinery and put the arable land out to contract – thereby clearing the Estate’s debts. Following a successful funding application to restore the central 350 acres of the Estate that had been under the plough since the Second World War, the possibility of rewilding across the whole Estate was contemplated. Of particular interest were the ideas of grazing ecology expounded by Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera in his book “Grazing Ecology and Forest History” (CABI, 2001).
In 2010, the Knepp Wildland project received full Government backing with Higher Level Stewardship funding and today the experiment is known for its astonishing wildlife successes which offer insights and solutions for some of our most pressing environmental problems. This includes soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, pollinating insects and carbon sequestration.
Following our arrival at Horsham station, we made our way, via a local lunchtime watering hole, to the Knepp visitor centre where we were greeted by Rina, our safari guide, who would take us on our walking safari. One of the first moves made twenty years ago was to take down all the fences and barriers to allow for the free roaming of wildlife. This was immediately noticeable as we first entered Knepp and it felt unusual to experience the rural English landscape so open and unconstrained.
Following a short briefing from Rina we set off and, on rounding our first corner, we spotted a small herd of fallow deer grazing unconcerned by our presence some fifty metres distant. Rina explained how the introduction of various species was changing to ground conditions through rooting and trampling allowing dormant seeds to germinate and bring back species that may not have flowered here for generations. Our attention was also drawn to how the steeps side of a water course had been softened and made gentler by the hooves of longhorn cattle accessing the water to drink.
I was struck by things that wouldn’t have caught my eye but were pointed out to us. For example, the few cows we saw were able to amble to the banks of ditches to drink - this softens the gradient of the slopes, and in turn creates a new margin of habitat that is lost in steep-sided field drains. Also, water begins to pool in naturally formed depressions – rewilding and sustainable drainage two sides of the same coin.
Graeme Phillips, Partner at JTP
A little further on and we saw a couple of foxes disappear into a thicket. And then, at the end of the meadow, we witnessed a huge white flapping bird atop a half dead tree – it was a stork tending to its large nest construction. We stood and fixed our binoculars to get a closer view of this reintroduced bird, nesting again in England after a gap of over 600 years.
Some movement in the bushes to our right turned out to be a curious longhorn cow, part of a larger family group relaxing and content in the next pasture. The hardy longhorn breed was chosen for Knepp for its relatively placid nature and to replicate the natural impact on the landscape of the long extinct aurochs that once roamed the English countryside.
The Knepp Estate made a lasting impression on me. As we made our way around one small part of the study area there was a growing realisation that not only were all things naturally connected and interrelated and our role in the order of things was a small one, but also that our preconceived ideas of the aesthetics of the rural landscape, based on Victorian ideals of control and containment were being shaken to the core!
Nigel Bidwell, Partner at JTP
Further on we saw Tamworth pigs which take the role of wild boar in the Estate ecosystem. Wild boar cannot be reintroduced to Knepp as this is prevented by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. The Tamworth pigs root around exposing bare soil, encouraging pioneer species like sallow (hybridised willow), a food source of the purple emperor butterfly. Previously there were no purple emperors on Knepp, now it has the UK’s largest breeding population!
Apart from the big beasts, and the shape of the landscape, many of the benefits that rewilding has brought to Knepp are only obvious to the trained eye. One aspect that is noticeable to anyone who visits however is the constant sound of birdsong, with an array of species audible from cuckoo to nightingale, turtle dove to lapwing. This is in stark contrast to many parts of the British countryside where the sound of birdsong is nowadays often only noticeable by its absence.
The walking safari was an excellent way of experiencing first-hand the nature of a landscape left to its own devices. The self-seeded oak trees naturally protected from big herbivores by brambles, and water channels that find the fastest route, were both clear examples of nature finding its own way. Allowing landscape to “run wild” was liberating to observe and challenged and deepened our understanding of how the natural and the built environment might come together harmoniously across our projects.
Rebecca Taylor, Partner at JTP