Gut Knepp: Why the kings and queens of naturalization are farming again after 20 years overgrown

IIt’s strange to hear the owners of the UK’s pioneering rewilding project at the Knepp estate in West Sussex rave about farming. But Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree are returning to a sector they left 20 years ago. In 2000, they let their unprofitable dairy and arable farm go to waste. Now Knepp Wildland is a 1,400-hectare rewilding project, home to a smörgåsbord of notable wildlife, including endangered nightingales and turtledoves. It’s a success story that has inspired many to think differently about land and how much wildlife we ​​should expect to have in our landscape.

The rising sun seen through the branches of a tree with mist on a patch of water
Dawn at Knepp. The property is home to a variety of wildlife, including nightingales and turtledoves. Photo: Anthony Cullen/The Guardian

Another chapter is now being added to the Knepp story, as the last 150 hectares of land will be incorporated into the project. For decades the land scattered around the villages of Shipley and Dial Post was farmed by a tenant farmer who used it to graze sheep. But the farmer has gone and it’s being revamped and transformed into the Knepp estate’s regenerative farm, which will supply local groceries for a new farm shop and cafe due to open later this year. They also open a nursery using the manure from the cows. Knepp visitors can participate in farm safaris, just like the Rewilding project.

I meet the couple on a farm that was a commercial dairy for a century until the year 2000. It’s a big empty yard right now, but it won’t be quiet for long. They already have 40 Sussex cattle in their regenerative farming herd, which will increase to 130 over the next 12 months. The barns will likely house livestock during the winter months when the clay fields get too wet. One of the cows – an unwanted pregnancy – gave birth in the barn right after I left.

The “King and Queen of Rewilding,” as Burrell and Tree were known, are usually photographed against a patch of bush, standing in tall grass, or stroking an old oak tree. Today their backdrop is a jumble of barbed wire, some old fence posts and a barn full of hay. It’s not your typical rural scene, but removing outdated tangles of wire and sprucing up hedges is part of bringing nature back to this farm.

A couple stands amidst a pile of rusting wire fences on a farm
Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, owners of the Knepp estate, stand next to old barbed wire fences pulled from the hedges surrounding the farm. Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Turning your vision into reality requires a significant investment. The couple have poured £250,000 into the project, which their farm manager Russ Carrington is expected to pay back over 20 years. The money will be used to buy cattle, a cowshed (which keeps the animals calm during the study), a cow brush (which they can use to scratch themselves), hurdles and gates, fences, polytunnels and a caravan for interns.

By year five, Carrington hopes to turn a profit, although this is difficult to predict as the post-Brexit future of government farm grants remains uncertain. Lucky for Burrell and Tree, the proceeds from the rewilding will help fund this relatively risky project. Many farmers could not afford that.

Burrell believes that if they had been regeneratively farming all along, they might not have shouldered the debt that forced them to make the decision to go back to wild in the first place.

“The biggest change that will take place in our landscape is regenerative agriculture. I think we’re seeing this huge movement everywhere we go,” says Burrell, who believes this will be the norm in the UK within a few decades. “It’ll be weird if you don’t. It makes perfect sense.”

Much has changed in the last 20 years and UK farmers are increasingly being encouraged to think about farming for climate and biodiversity, with the expected revolution in subsidies driving much of those changes, although environmental groups fear government programs will fall short of that what was promised.

A man crumbles some compost in his hands
Russ Carrington, who manages the regenerative farm on the Knepp estate, inspects the compost used in the new nursery. Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian

It’s difficult to define regenerative agriculture, but the focus is on improving soil health, which is key to a robust farming system. Key principles include limiting soil disturbance, growing a variety of crops year-round, and keeping roots in the soil as much as possible.

Burrell says, “Every time you plow, you turn an entire living world upside down, and you have to start all over again. If you do this long enough you will kill everything. When you think about it, the regenerative farming movement just makes sense.”

An important part of the project will be in-depth baseline surveys. They took soil samples from eight fields, including a control sample from a neighbor’s non-biological field, and also examined insect populations. Burrell is excited about the development of airborne environmental DNA (eDNA) to obtain even more complex data on water, soil and air samples.

Tests are carried out every five years. “We’ll see if it’s right or wrong,” he says. “We’re going to find out what that looks like on this piece of land – we started with this and ended with that, and then we’ll talk about it. Everything must be as truthful as possible. You’re not trying to push any particular idea forward.”

In the Rewilding project, biodiversity is the product with meat as a by-product. On the regenerative farm, meat is the product and biodiversity is the by-product. The livestock density on the rewilding side is 0.25 units per hectare, while the density on the farm will be four times higher.

A farmer holds a coil of wire followed by a herd of red cattle
Carrington unwinds an electric fence to “move” the cattle mob to fresh grass around the property. Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian

The issue of meat consumption is one of the most sensitive, with conflicting views on what is the right amount to consume. Tree has previously written for the Guardian that we should reduce it, but is promoting the consumption of meat and dairy raised on traditional rotary grazing systems. Many scientists argue that a vegan diet is better for the planet.

Unlike the rewilding project, where the animals are free to roam, the farm is criss-crossed with makeshift electric fences. The cattle herd are alternately grazed in “mobs” and periodically brought out onto fresh grass to allow the land to rest during breaks. The idea is that the cows will eat about a third of the grass on each piece of land, fertilize it with pats, and move on before it gets too short, giving it enough time to grow back before letting it graze again.

To move the herd on, Carrington just has to shout “fresh grass” and the cows will moo and run to the next section. “I can get cows anywhere with those two words,” he says.

A strip of grass between two plowed fields with a polytunnel in the background
Plot of land for the development of a new nursery on Gut Knepp. Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian

In addition to the cows, he has bought 68 chickens that will follow the flock and collect insects and worms. He starts with vegetable cases in June and the first beef will be ready in 12 months. In his third year, he wants to open a calf-by-foot micro-dairy where calves stay with their mothers until they wean naturally, around nine months of age.

Many of the initiatives at Regenerative Farm Knepp stem from the Rewilding project, bringing a wilder aesthetic to the farmland. Carrington fenced hedges to allow them to spread out and provide more habitat for shrubland species that are generally removed from conventional farms. Hedgerows, like rivers, are wildlife highways that connect the regenerative farm to the rewilding project. Deadwood is left to rot and swampy, unproductive patches of soil are encouraged rather than removed. These features will help provide a network in the landscape for wildlife to move through and find food.

“If I were just trying to make money on this land, I wouldn’t do it any differently. The value of this country is not in food production. To me, this seems like the only way to farm this land,” says Carrington.

This latest project aims to bring rewilding and regenerative agriculture together. It’s about connecting biodiversity hotspots like Knepp to the wider landscape and creating corridors that wildlife can use to move through the landscape. It’s another model for creating space for nature and agriculture in an increasingly contested area.

For more coverage of the Age of Extinctions, click here and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Grunfeld on Twitter for all the latest news and features

Leave a Comment