The growl of a large grizzly bear filled the hall at Lyndhurst Community Centre and the audience of two hundred people gasped. As curtains drew back and they were confronted with a huge picture of the bear, they listened attentively to Sir Charles Burrell’s description of his pioneering rewilding project at his family estate, Knepp, in West Sussex. At the event organised by the Friends of the New Forest, Sir Charles explained that rewilding is not currently about bringing back such major predators as we don’t have the right eco-systems. He showed how Britain has only tiny pockets of true ‘nature’, and we need to care for these but also need more, bigger, better and more joined-up areas if we are to have a real impact on nature conservation.
Sir Charles went on to describe how over a period of six years, the Knepp estate moved away from traditional arable and pastoral farming on what he said was very poor quality Wealden Clay land, whose production capacity was falling short of national averages. He divided the estate into three main areas, which were treated differently. In the southern block, formerly mainly arable land, field hedges were removed, and the land was stocked with Tamworth pigs, Old English Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies, while three species of deer soon made themselves at home. Scrub developed quickly, though each former field responded differently.
The middle block where the old Knepp Castle had been was believed to be a cultural landscape, a park with a large hammer pond designed by Repton. It was re-seeded with grass and wildflowers, which deterred an exuberant explosion of scrub. The resulting grassland is stocked with ponies, cattle and deer but no pigs.
The northern block had been farmed for dairy cattle, and was re-seeded with grasses but no wildflowers, and is now stocked just with cattle. The resulting open farmscape is slowly developing a little scrub. Sir Charles explained how he had been criticised for creating scrubland, and pointed out that pollen data from 6,000 years ago reveals that only one third of Britain was covered by woodland, contrary to the popular myth that a squirrel could once pass from tree to tree without touching the ground from Lands End to John O’Groats.
The Knepp project is steered by an advisory board of international experts from many relevant fields,. In order to have a more convenient term for a ‘long-term, minimum intervention, natural process-led area’, which although accurate would hardly inspire anyone, ‘rewilding’ was adopted. This team looked at the UK’s extinct animals and selected proxies which would be appropriate, for example, cattle to replace aurochs. Sir Charles enthusiastically described how the animals seem to complement each other, and the new habitats have drawn in huge numbers and varieties of insects, birds and animals as well as plants, many more than when the estate was farmed traditionally. The estate employs a full-time ecologist to survey, monitor and record these. They have also found that their soil biodiversity and function have improved significantly.
Perhaps surprisingly Sir Charles then demonstrated how the changes have also benefitted the estate financially. Even excluding the tourism, camping and glamping activities which he has developed, the income from the farming side of the estate now well exceeds the national average by some 30%.
Sir Charles was then joined on the platform by Debbie Tann, Chief Executive of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, and Diana Westerhoff, a Verderer, to answer questions from the floor. Debbie Tann said that she has visited Knepp and been most impressed by what the estate is doing. She said that wildlife in Britain is disappearing at an alarming rate and we need imagination and new bold thinking to put nature into recovery. She reported that the Trust is looking for opportunities in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to create larger scale reserves and one or two ‘Knepps’.
Diana Westerhoff commented that while the New Forest is very different to Knepp, there have been some efforts at rewilding. The Forest Design Plan is resulting in restoration to traditional land use in some areas, while the wetland restoration programme is returning lost habitats to a favourable condition.
Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre, President of the Friends of the New Forest, noted that one of the six reasons for rewilding listed on the Knepp website was the revitalisation of communities, and wondered how this could be achieved where farms are smaller. To this question, Sir Charles responded with news of an upland farmer he had met at the Oxford farming conference. By changing his pattern of sheep farming including actually reducing stock numbers, and diversifying into holiday lets, he had managed to make his business much more sustainable.
In reply to a question about the impact of global warming on wildlife habitats, Debbie Tann agreed that there is some impact on habitats but possibly more on the food needed by wildlife. She gave the examples of a crash in insect numbers and changes in timing of bird migration having severe effects. Diana Westerhoff added an example of the falcon species, the hobby, declining in the Forest because of a decline in the numbers of house martins, a favoured food of their young. And Sir Charles gave his own example of cuckoos, which have returned to Knepp in good numbers. However they feed with swifts in sub-Saharan Africa, and if it doesn’t rain there for five weeks and there are no insects, they never arrive in Britain.
Another audience member proposed that people are increasingly intolerant of wild landscapes and incapable of being sensible round large herbivores, and wondered if rewilding as a concept would help. Maybe because visitors to Knepp understand they are visiting a ‘rewilded’ landscape, they are more respectful of the large grazing herbivores than visitors to the New Forest are with the free-roaming livestock. Sir Charles recalled a neighbouring farmer who runs educational visits finding that even young farmers could not name common trees, and he suggested that we need more nature education as part of the curriculum. Debbie Tann suggested that we need to rewild people and regretted that many children have never known the fun of running around in long grass.
Questioned about the complexities of environmental stewardship schemes, Sir Charles noted that the Rural Payments Agency uses Google satellite images to categorise landscape, resulting in confused and contradictory definitions which need to be sorted out soon. Diana Westerhoff reported that the Higher Level Stewardship scheme includes more or less all grazed land but the Rural Payments Agency excludes gorse as non-grazing land even though ponies happily eat it in winter.
Comparing the New Forest to Knepp, the next questioner noted that while Knepp has withdrawn from management, in the New Forest we manage both land and stock much more. Diana Westerhoff pointed out that the Forest starts from a very different position, resulting from biodiversity developed over thousands of years. It would be good to have other Knepps around the Forest but we could lose from emulating it in the Forest itself. Debbie Tann added that only 55% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the Forest are classified as in a ‘favourable’ condition, little better than compared with 45% across the whole of Hampshire, and some extra wilding activity might be helpful to improve this. Sir Charles picked up the point of rewilding people and felt that this arises from inspirational things in the landscape – think beyond the box. What about bison?
Focusing on the Forest, it was suggested that the grazed areas of the forest do not enjoy the abundance of wildlife described at Knepp and the questioner asked what impact animal density has on this. Sir Charles felt that it was not necessary to worry about it. This is just a moment in time, and livestock numbers wax and wane over long periods. Diana Westerhoff endorsed this and added that even short-grazed turf may be home to species missing from other habitats. The woodlands are rich in insects like moths and in bats but we just don’t often see them.
Sir Charles was asked to explain the term ‘pop-up Knepps’ mentioned in his talk. He pointed out that farms and estates pass down the generations and landowners may not wish to tie the land forever to specific conservation designations like SSSIs. So a commitment to plan for 10 or 20 years would enable people to choose to return to conventional farming in the future. The Knepp estate has footpaths crossing it and Sir Charles was asked how he manages the public. He stated that longhorn cattle were useful in deterring people from straying from paths, but that dog-walkers were a problem for ground-nesting birds. He suggested that good paths, routes, maps and signs were all needed.
Thinking again of the Forest, two questions raised the effect of grazing levels on the possible decline in wildlife and growth of new trees, issues welcomed by the audience with applause. Diana Westerhoff noted that studies on the impact of grazing on ground-nesting birds showed that it was hard to separate it from other factors like deer numbers, dog-walking, predators and climate change. But she commented that it was hard to control over-grazing. Tree regeneration is a long-term business and the Forest includes pasture woodland rather than dense canopy woodland.
At this point John Ward, Chairman of the Friends of the New Forest, said that he did not feel comfortable at being told we don’t have enough information so cannot take action, and asked the panel whether, nonetheless, it might be possible to divide the Forest into areas and exclude recreational access to part of it in order to test rewilding. Sir Charles responded positively, saying that the Forest is large enough to do this. Joking, he even suggested bringing back wolves to control the deer! But he felt that it was possible to amend stock intensity and deer density. He also pointed out the value of thorn bushes which protect young trees, quoting an ancient forestry saying: ‘the thorn is the mother of the oak’. An audience member added that a 400-year old oak only needs one seedling produced during its lifetime to replace itself.
The next question raised the issue of recreational pressure. Debbie Tann agreed that for the New Forest this is the greatest current problem. The words ‘National Park’ mislead the public, and some rewilding might make the nature and purpose of the Forest clearer. We need to be braver, for example in challenging plans for housing development, and local authorities should be providing alternative green space for recreation outside the Forest.
Finally Peter Roberts, previous Chairman of the Friends of the New Forest, enquired what would be the smallest area which could engage in rewilding, with the large estates around the Forest and the Forestry Commission in mind. Sir Charles gave examples of the area which a pig needs per week, because scale matters. The smaller the area, the more management you have to do. The bigger you get, the more you can sit back and leave it alone.
At the end of a stimulating and wide-ranging discussion, Oliver Crosthwaite Eyre thanked Sir Charles for his talk and admired his courage in rewilding Knepp, also thanking Debbie Tann and Diana Westerhoff for their contribution and finally urging the audience to join the Friends of the New Forest to support its fight for the Forest’s sustainable future.