Charlie Burrell inherited Knepp Estate, a 3,500 acre dairy and arable farm in West Sussex in the 1980s. After farming intensively and unprofitably on the heavy clay for 17 years, in 2000 he embarked on a rewilding project based on a system of naturalistic grazing. It is the largest such project in lowland Britain and boasts extraordinary wildlife successes.
I think Steven Robinson has misunderstood the core principles behind rewilding, and its enormous potential. He focuses on ‘wilderness’ – but we have very little opportunity to recreate that on our crowded island. The accepted definition of ‘wilderness’ is “an area governed by natural processes. It is composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. It is unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements , infrastructure or visual disturbance.”
What we’re talking about with ‘rewilding’ is ‘process-led’ conservation – something that can get nature working again in depleted areas. If you think of a spectrum with ‘wilderness’ at one end and completely controlled landscapes at the other (intensive farming, for example), rewilding can be anywhere on the spectrum between the kind of highly controlled nature areas (as might be managed by the RSPB to protect one or more particular species) and wilderness itself. We desperately need to find opportunities for nature – for functioning systems – across the board, where we all live, as well as in the wild, remote, inaccessible regions Steven talks about.
The importance of Frans Vera’s work for rewilding – and I strongly urge Steven Robinson to read Grazing Ecology & Forest History – is that it gives us a different baseline for nature in our part of the world. Temperate-zone Europe, he demonstrates, was not ubiquitous closed canopy woodland but a far more open, diverse, fragmented landscape. It was a mosaic of habitats driven, in the main, by herds of large herbivores. Recent research in the UK into sub-fossil dung and saproxylic beetles, chalk grassland snails, light-demanding lichen and fungi endorse this view. Scientists continue to debate as to what extent our landscape was open but most now agree that our ecology grew up with – and needs, in order to exist – considerable disturbance from grazing and browsing animals (something that has been previously entirely overlooked) and plenty of opportunity for light.
We cannot simply ‘leave it to wild nature’. As anyone knows, if you simply leave a piece of land with no interference whatsoever it will eventually end up in close canopy woods – ie when there is nothing present in the landscape to kick-start the system, all you will get is very species-poor habitat. This is what would have happened at Knepp had we done nothing. Introducing free-roaming grazing animals – obviously at low densities – can create the kind of competition between disturbance and vegetation succession that is hugely productive for wildlife, resulting in habitat complexity and structure variation – the ‘margins’ where most of life lives.
Predators need space – and space, in our world, is at a premium. Of course a fully restored ecosystem with apex predators – such as Yellowstone or the Fagaras mountains of the Southern Carpathians – is wonderful but interesting processes can happen without them and on a smaller scale, and even in highly populated areas. Rewilding is not about always looking to pristine systems in the past. It is about habitat creation. In parts it may resemble what was happening before, but it is – essentially – about creating something to the benefit of nature within the constraints imposed on us in most of the world today.
Of course the domesticated cow is a very different beast to the wild aurochs – but they are direct descendants, they have similar mouths, they still have four stomachs, and are vehicles for the same flora, bacteria, fungi and microbes. The Exmoor pony and other old breeds of horse are likely to have an even closer relationship to the original Tarpan. Red and roe deer will have changed very little. So I would argue, using a suite of species like this (and we would welcome the additional disturbance of the beaver at Knepp) creates the same kind of dynamism in the landscape that their ancestors would have generated.
Our results at Knepp – having been a 3,500-acre intensive arable and dairy farm ‘desert’ until the year 2000– gives us grounds to believe that using domestic animals as proxies in a ‘rewilding’ project like ours is infinitely worth doing. The habitats created by our herds of Exmoors, old English longhorn, Tamworth pigs, red, roe and fallow deer in just 16 years has encouraged the return of an astonishing amount of wildlife including numerous critically endangered species. We have one of the largest breeding populations of turtle doves and nightingales in the UK, the largest population of purple emperor butterflies, 13 out of the UK’s 17 species of bat, all five species of owl, nesting peregrine falcons – everything from ravens and lesser-spotted woodpeckers to mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms returning to our soils.
To correct Steven Robinson’s specific misconceptions about Knepp – the populations of all the grazing animals within the project are controlled since this is an enclosed area. This system – not unlike ranching – produces 35 tonnes of organic, pasture-fed, free-range meat. We have a healthy population of roe deer. We no longer control predators in the core area of our rewilding project (though tenant farms may be doing so). We are now monitoring our fox population to see the impact on our re-establishing colonies of ground-nesting birds like lapwing. The hope is that fox numbers will stabilise and reach an equilibrium. We do not shoot woodcock. Three years ago, as part of the GWCT’s woodcock research project, we satellite-tagged a woodcock at Knepp and have been delighted to watch its migration from a patch of scrub on Knepp to its summer nesting site in Finland, and back again, two years running, to exactly the same spot at Knepp. We are waiting with baited breath to see if she arrives back safely again in the next few weeks.
In sum, rewilding – in all its various degrees across the spectrum – offers a way of reconnecting nature throughout our landscape. I hope Steven will come and visit Knepp to see what we are doing and engage with us all at Rewilding Britain.