It’s English countryside as you’ve never seen it before. Taking a walk through Knepp Castle estate in the leafy Sussex countryside is bewildering, challenging and utterly thrilling.
A fallow deer hurtles from a blackthorn thicket. Buzzards rise from every copse. A purple emperor butterfly glides around an oak. A shrew scuttles between stunted hawthorns, shaped into topiary by free-ranging cattle. It feels like the land has been set free – and in 2001, these 3,500 acres were. Their owner, Charlie Burrell, inherited a conventional dairy and arable farm but, inspired by Frans Vera, a Dutch rewilding ecologist, took his land out of conventional cultivation.
What’s happened since is astonishing. Hedges have marched into fields, meadows have filled with wild flowers, young oaks and sallow thickets – an explosion of fecundity. Such fertility is squandered by rewilding, say critics, who argue that it is crazy to pay subsidies to farmers to stop producing food when Britain already eats far more than it can grow.
Knepp offers a riposte to this. Despite rewilding, it is still a farm that produces 75 tonnes of quality organic meat each year from Burrell’s free-grazing animals – Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and roe and fallow deer.