This September, we took the opportunity to thank our volunteers and staff for their hard work and dedication, with a long-awaited trip to see the fantastic rewilding project at Knepp Estate, south of Horsham. The estate was originally used for intensive farming, until 2001 when the owners took the bold decision to end farming, reintroduce grazing animals, and allow the land to return to a natural state. The resulting transformation has been a huge success, so it was exciting to be able to go on their walking safari, and also take a look at where an infamous native species will be reintroduced, later this year.
Our members were split into small groups and allocated a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, to tour different areas of the site. A buzzard circled above, as the guides detailed which large, yet elusive, herbivores could be seen on the walk. Longhorn Cattle, Exmoor Ponies and Red Deer were present, plus Tamworth Pigs and Fallow Deer, which our groups were lucky enough to see, had all been introduced as a key part of the rewilding process. Without their grazing, a closed canopy forest would overtake the estate, yet it is the mixture of tall woodland and low-lying scrubland at Knepp which make it so biodiverse.
On route to the first stop, a large white stork nest was seen high in the tree tops. Our guide explained that two young storks had built the nest within a week – an incredible achievement due its size! While the pair did not successfully breed, it was a good sign that the area is continuing to attract these birds. Knepp is part of the White Stork Project, and currently house a small colony of 20 rescue storks, which can no longer fly due to previous injuries. The hope is that other storks spot the small group and choose to breed with them and stay locally, which will improve the genetic diversity of the colony and help secure the future of the species.
The next area of scrubland shown, was a fantastic example of rapid rewilding. Within 15 years, seeds from the surrounding hedgerows had been trapped by the hooves of cattle, and deposited in droppings, which then spread and germinated across the farmland. The vegetation had grown into large domed shapes, which proved to be a popular and safe nesting place for linnets, whitethroats, and many other birds.
A tree was often spotted growing out of the top of these vegetation ‘domes’, with oak being the most commonly found tree at Knepp. Forgotten acorns, which had been buried with surrounding greenery, were later protected from being eaten by deer, as the growing brambles create a defensive ‘skirt’ around the saplings. Some may find them unsightly, but we love how these un-kempt shrubs support biodiversity!
The staff at Knepp Estate shared their experience of the benefits of minimal land management. In particular, they found that by not trimming back hedges, new growth would continue to appear. This is especially important for the declining brown hairstreak butterfly, which lays its eggs on the new shoots of blackthorn hedgerows. Unlike traditional conservation methods, which can need a lot of human involvement, this simple method of leaving hedges untrimmed where possible, is an easy and cheap management strategy to try at home and in public spaces.
A notable feature of the land was the uneven ground, where the Tamworth pigs had been rooting. The unearthing of seeds, which then germinate in the disrupted ground, had enabled wildflowers to grow all over the estate. These buds and small leaves seem to be a favoured food source for Turtle doves in the area. Nationally, Turtle doves are expected to become extinct within a few years, so the staff hope to tag the doves and track their movements and feeds, to prove that reintroducing pigs to other areas in the UK could help the species.
The main lesson learned on the trip, was to remember to always be untidy where possible! This beautiful lightning-struck tree would usually have been cleared, but keeping the tree and its debris has provided a fantastic habitat for insects. Try leaving out dead wood in your garden to naturally biodegrade overtime, or pile the wood into a bug hotel, to support insect popualtions. Our gardens make up more land than all the nature reserves in the UK put together, so you can make a real difference just by leaving areas of your garden less manicured.
Near the end of the safari tour, our members were shown an area with ditches and rivers, which will soon become home to European beavers, relocated from a reintroduction programme in Scotland. The beavers are expected to make use of the abundant young willow growing near Knepp’s watercourses, which in turn will allow light-loving and oxygenating plants to thrive in the water. In fact, the beavers will be managing the land much like our volunteers do for our Fixing and Linking Our Wetlands Project. We can’t wait to return next year and see how the landscape has changed!
Our team send a big thank you to Knepp Estate for a wonderful tour and an interesting insight into different land management strategies. The site is 3,500 acres, so there is lots more to see on our next trip, and we highly recommend that you visit!
Learn more about Knepp Estate on their website: www.knepp.co.uk/home
Post by Nicola Timney