Domaine Knepp: why the king and queen of rewilding are farming again after 20 years | Re-wild

IIt’s strange to hear the owners of the UK’s pioneering rewilding project on Knepp’s estate in West Sussex rave about farming. But Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree are returning to an area they left 20 years ago. In 2000, they let their unprofitable dairy and arable operation go to seed. Today, Knepp Wildland is a 1,400-hectare (3,500-acre) rewilding project, home to an assortment of remarkable wildlife, including critically endangered nightingales and doves. It’s an achievement that has inspired many people to think differently about the land and the amount of wildlife we ​​should expect in our countryside.

Dawn at Knepp. The estate is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including nightingales and doves. Photograph: Anthony Cullen/The Guardian

Now another chapter is added to Knepp’s story, as the last 150 hectares of land are merged into the project. For decades, the land scattered around the villages of Shipley and Dial Post was farmed by a sharecropper who used it to graze sheep. But the farmer is gone and it is being torn down and turned into the Knepp Estate Regenerative Farm, which will supply local food to a new farm shop and cafe, due to open later this year. They are also opening a market garden, which will use cow manure. Visitors to Knepp will be able to participate in farm safaris, just as they do on the rewilding project.

I meet the couple in a barnyard which, until 2000, had been a commercial dairy for a century. For now, it’s a big empty yard, but it won’t be quiet for long. They already have 40 Sussex cattle in their regenerative agriculture herd, which will grow to 130 over the next 12 months. Barns are likely to house livestock during the winter months when the clay fields become too wet underfoot. One of the cows – an unplanned pregnancy – gave birth in the barn just after I left.

The “king and queen of rewilding”, as Burrell and Tree have been labeled, are normally photographed in front of a patch of brush, standing in tall grass or stroking an old oak tree. Today, their backdrop is a mess of barbed wire, a few old fence posts and a barn full of hay. It’s not your typical bucolic scene, but removing outdated wire tangles and reinforcing hedges is part of nature’s return to this farm.

A couple stands in a farmyard amidst a pile of rusty wire fences
Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, owners of the Knepp estate, stand by old barbed wire fences removed from the hedgerows around the farm. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Making their vision a reality requires a significant investment. The couple have injected £250,000 into the project, which their farm manager, Russ Carrington, expects to repay over 20 years. The money will be used to buy cattle, a crush (which restrains the animals while they are examined), a brush for the cows (which allows them to scratch themselves), hedges and barriers, fences, polytunnels and a caravan for trainees.

By year five, Carrington hopes to start making a profit, although that is hard to predict when the future of post-Brexit government farm subsidies remains uncertain. Burrell and Tree are fortunate that proceeds from the reseeding will help fund this relatively risky project. Many farmers could not afford it.

Burrell thinks that if they had practiced regenerative agriculture all along, they might not have been saddled with the debt that forced them to make the decision to regenerate in the first place.

“The biggest change that is going to happen 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 decades. “It will be weird if you don’t. It is quite logical.

Much has changed in the past 20 years and increasingly UK farmers are being encouraged to think about farming for the climate and biodiversity, with the planned revolution in subsidies causing a big part of that change, though environmental groups fear government programs will fall. below what was promised.

A man crumbles compost in his hands
Russ Carrington, who manages the Knepp estate’s regenerative farm, inspects the compost that will be used in the new market garden. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Regenerative agriculture is difficult to define, but its center is improving soil health, which is key to a robust agricultural system. The main principles are to limit disturbances of the soil, to cultivate a variety of plants all year round and to keep the roots in the soil as much as possible.

Burrell says, “Every time you plow, you upset a whole living world and they have to start over. If you keep doing this long enough, you’ll kill everything. When you think about it like that, the regenerative agricultural movement makes perfect sense. »

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

Tests will be carried out every five years. “We’ll see if it’s good or bad,” he said. “We are going to tease on this piece of land what it looks like – we started with this and end with this and then we talk about it. Everything should be as truthful as possible. You’re not trying to push any particular idea.

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

A farmer holds a spool of wire followed by a herd of red cattle
Carrington unrolls an electric fence to “move the crowd” of cattle to the fresh grass around the estate. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

The issue of meat consumption is one of the thorniest, with conflicting views on the right amount to eat. Tree has previously written for the Guardian to say we should cut back, but encourage the consumption of meat and dairy raised on traditional rotational grazing systems. Many scientists claim that going vegan is better for the planet.

Unlike the rewilding project, where the animals can roam freely, the farm is criss-crossed with temporary electric fences. The herd of oxen will be rotationally grazed in ‘mobs’, regularly moved to fresh grass, so that the land can be rested in the gaps. The idea is that the cows eat about a third of the grass on each patch of land, fertilizing it with taps as they go, and are moved before it gets too short, giving it enough time to regrow before it is grazed again. .

To keep the herd moving, all Carrington has to do is shout “fresh grass” and the cows are soon mooing and rushing into the next section. “I can have cows anywhere using those two words,” he says.

A strip of grass between two plowed fields with a polytunnel in the background
Land under development in a new market garden on the Knepp estate. Photography: Peter Flude/The Guardian

In addition to the cows, he bought 68 hens which will follow the herd collecting insects and worms. He starts the vegetable boxes in June, and the first beef will be ready in 12 months. During the third year, he wants to start a “veal-to-foot” micro-dairy, where calves stay with their mothers until they are weaned naturally at around nine months of age.

Many Knepp Regenerative Farm initiatives stem from the Rewilding Project, bringing a wilder aesthetic to farmland. Carrington fenced in the hedgerows to begin to swell, providing more habitat for scrubland species typically tucked away from conventional farms. Like rivers, hedgerows are wildlife highways, connecting the regenerative farm to the rewilding project. Dead wood will be left to rot and swampy, unproductive patches of land will be encouraged rather than removed. These features will help provide a network in the landscape for wildlife to move around and find food.

“If I was just trying to make money on this earth, I wouldn’t do it so differently. The value of this land is not in food production. For me, that’s the only way to farm this land,” says Carrington.

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

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