My partner and I spent a weekend camping at Knepp Castle Estate and, in short, it was incredible. The wind and rain battered our little red tent all night. It held up ok; we got a bit wet, but we didn’t care too much. The next morning we walked through a gate in the six-foot-two-inch deer fence and out into the wild. Here the owners of the estate, Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree, have, as much as is legally and morally possible, left nature to its own devices. Their controversial non-interventionist policies allow grazing animals to roam freely across the 3,500-acre farm, helping heath and scrubland develop, which in turn allows all kinds of insects, small mammals, birds, plants, and fungi to flourish. Allowing nature to take its own course has created a massive and visible leap in biodiversity. Furthermore, they have redirected the river Adur from a lifeless Victorian canal back along its original route.
This has renewed the local wetlands, creating a natural carbon sink and homes for fish, amphibians, and reptiles that are prey for storks, herons, cormorants, and all manner of other native species of birds.
It was amazing to be in West Sussex, an hour from Hastings, 30 miles south of London, and see these native animals of the British Isles living wild in their natural environment. I have never been so excited to see a pig before! Vital and healthy, happily rootling through the soil as a family group, they gave me infinitely more pleasure than seeing them cooped up in pens, overweight and rolling around in their own faeces, living out their entire lives with little purpose than breeding and becoming pork chops. I bet those gorgeous brown acorn-fed Tamworth pigs taste
one hell of a lot better too.
We don’t realise how detached we have become from the visceral wildness of nature until we see the sheer beauty of life before us – red deer and fallow deer bellowing and charging at each other in the rut, in their mating season, locking horns, and battling over the right to spread their genes. To walk through the woodland and see the horned head of a stag turned towards you, watching trepidatiously in the middle distance, as an owl flies past, is to be reunited with our ancestral connection to the woodland that we have lost. It is to feel a part of nature again, to see the spirit of the forest coming alive, to get back to our pagan roots, to be Jack in the Green once more. Herds of Exmoor ponies and longhorn cattle roam the land. We saw two storks nesting in a grand old oak, where recently the first stork chicks have hatched in Britain since 1416. From their nest size, you can see how a child would believe they could keep a baby in there before dropping it off to its new family.
Incredible, this legend is remembered in a culture where no children have seen a nest-like that for 600 years, a testament to the mythological power that the majesty of nature holds for us.
One of the most beautiful things to witness at Knepp was how the water is allowed to run through the land. What green and verdant mystery the land has when the river is allowed to flow as it chooses, rather than being redirected through steep-sided canals and concrete reservoirs! It brings a lushness to the landscape, to see the blades of grass sprouting up through the surface of the water, the tree roots growing from the riverbed, the little lagoons where the grass snake stalks water voles under the watchful eye of the falcon. This year they have been granted permission to reintroduce the beaver, providing sanctuary for another mammal that was hunted to near extinction. The way that beavers change rivers’ flow with their leaky dams and lodges has a very positive impact on wildlife, reducing the effects of flash flooding, improving biodiversity and vegetative complexity. It is hoped that setting a positive example in Knepp will pave the way for their reintroduction elsewhere too.
Although we champion our countryside’s beauty, the United Kingdom is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. We have seen our native species decline at an alarming rate over the last hundred years, and even at the turn of the 19th century, wild flora and fauna in the British Isles were already greatly diminished, with apex predators such as wolves, bears, and lynx having long been extirpated from our shores. My partner and I had some time to kill before we returned home, so we sat in a field for a while on the way back. We couldn’t believe how something that before would have been a typically idyllic view of the British countryside now seemed such a lifeless, monocultural desert. A few trees, some hedgerows, and grass, grass, an endless sea of grass! I will never look the same upon that patchwork quilt of English countryside again; the quiet stitching that is evidence of man’s violent and destructive dominion over nature.
Today in Britain, farming marginal-land is becoming less viable as the competition from intensive farming drives food prices down. This pushed Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree to start rewilding Knepp Castle Estate. Building on their success, they have created a charity called Rewilding Britain, which aims to rewild an incredible 30% of Britain’s land and sea over the next ten years, targeting that arable land that has become unviable for farming. For our country, this will mean a broader and more colourful array of wildlife, healthier ecosystems, greater climate resilience, and more beautiful countryside. Like Shakespeare, our great bard once said, “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” If our children can grow up in a country where they feel connected to their wild nature rather than estranged from it, then there might just be some hope for our species on this planet once more.
With thanks to “Rewilding” by Isabella Tree for facts and figures – and the Shakespeare Quote!
Find out more and pledge your support at www.rewildingbritain.org.uk.