Simon Barnes

The farm that went wild

At Knepp Castle, where once there was a modern, unprofitable dairy farm, something very special is happening

The farm that went wild
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It was the nightingale I liked best. Or maybe the auroch. The nightingale sang strong and marvellously sweet when all the other singers had given up, his voice filling the night. Each nightingale has a personal repertoire of 250 phrases made from 600 individual sound units.

I ran into the auroch at six the next morning: enormous, uncompromising and emerging from the bush with a formidable set of horns. Now it’s true that aurochs went extinct 400 years ago; they were the wild cattle of Europe, Asia and North Africa, ancestors of all our domestic stock.

But this wild and extraordinary place is full of free-ranging old English longhorn cattle, and their job is to reprise the role of the auroch in creating and maintaining the atavistic landscape of England. And less than a couple of decades back, all this was as rigorously managed a farm as any Cirencester graduate could wish.

I was at Knepp Castle in Sussex, where the Burrells have farmed for more than a century. Charlie Burrell took it over at 21, fresh from the Royal Agricultural University. He ran 600 dairy cows who gave 3.5 million litres of milk a year, and managed 2,000 acres of arable land for 20 years, maximising everything that the land could do.

He was still losing money. It’s not easy land. It’s grudging in its response to human commercial demands. You can do what you like to shape the land to your wishes, but it stubbornly refuses to accept this in a manner that is profitable to the owner.

Burrell’s solution was devastating. He turned it wild. He removed more than 300 miles of fences and set the place off on a path that would take it back towards the ancient landscapes that farming has eradicated.

Rewilding. It’s a term much bandied about in conservation circles, and its meaning is protean and profound. How wild is wild? Burrell defines his place as a long-term minimum-intervention natural-process-led area. Which means that the whole thing is done with a solid intellectual and scientific understanding.

It was once believed that the pre-human English landscape was a closed-canopy oak wood, but this fails to take into account the large population of grazing and browsing mammals, which still shape landscapes across the world wherever they get the chance. The African savannahs are the world’s finest example.

England was once full of aurochs and wild boars, along with deer. So the strategy at Knepp has been to bring in the appropriate mammals and ask them nicely to get to work and recreate the landscape. Along with the auroch longhorns, Tamworth pigs play the part of wild boars; free-ranging wild boars would be illegal. There are public rights of way across the estate; this has to be a thrilling rather than a lethal place to visit. There are also introduced red deer and fallow deer, along with wild roe deer. Exmoor ponies have also been brought: a suite of large mammals that make a very decent approximation to the one the first English people knew.

This makes for interesting and exciting farming. A cow will roam across the great acreage of the farm in a herd of a dozen or so, but will give birth alone and hidden. She will leave the calf lying up for two or three days while she alternately grazes with the herd and returns to feed the calf. When the calf is ready she will take it to the herd, and the herd will surround it, learn it, and accept it as one of their number. In the meantime, the stockman must find the calf and ear-tag it, according to Defra protocol: a wacky mix of primordial and bureaucratic.

And so, in getting on for two decades, the landscape has changed, often in ways that no one expected. As a result, the place is heaving with life of the wild and the tame — well, tame-ish — kind.

So far there is no hint that a closed--canopy woodland will develop. The hedges have lost their discipline and shape and spread and straddled. Scrubby patches have grown up, and trees have come in. But at the same time other patches have stayed open, not because of tractors and toppers and forage harvesters but because of hungry animals.

Many areas of the ground are routinely turned over by rootling pigs. I came across a merry orange family of these, a sow with half a dozen half-grown young, busy trashing the place — and letting in more life as they do so.

No carnivores, though. Burrell talks wistfully, half-jokingly of the possibility of introducing lynx, one of the ancient British predators, but that remains fantasy, however agreeable. Humans must play the role of predators and take out animals so that the small universe can sustain itself. Wildness still requires a certain degree of control when it is done in these artificial circumstances.

The wildlife is astonishing. Knepp holds 2 per cent of the entire nightingale population of England, with at least 32 pairs established this year. There are also good numbers of turtle doves, one of the most steeply declining birds in Britain.

‘Process-led.’ A phrase that had me baffled, but Burrell explained that it means that ‘Sometimes you have to keep your hands under your bum.’ Not do anything. Just see what happens, rather take the landscape by the nose and force it into your own way of thinking.

As a result of this policy, Knepp is now a stronghold for Britain’s most sought-after butterfly, the purple emperor — and that’s been a surprise to everyone. It was thought to be a strictly woodland species — but the Knepp pigs opened up the sward, sallows grew spontaneously in the disturbed ground, the caterpillars feed on the sallows and the purple emperors emerged and danced.

The place is no longer losing money. There’s income from Defra in form of Higher Level Stewardship grants — many farms receive such grants without showing the wholehearted commitment of Knepp. There’s also funding from the EU. More money comes from the sale of premium free-ranging meat, and from deer-stalking. Many buildings are rented to local businesses. There is a camping (glamping rather) site for visitors who want to experience the wonders of the place.

You leave feeling rather befuddled. Did I dream that? Was I really back in ancient England? Did I stand in the night surrounded by nightingales, Daubenton’s bats and a long-eared owl? Did I spend next morning with England’s ancient fauna while our declining half-lost birds chorused all around? Did I really walk upon England’s green and pleasant land — the land that England is really meant to be?

Simon Barnes is a former chief sports writer of the Times; his most recent book is Ten Million Aliens: a Journey through the Entire Animal Kingdom.