St Leonards residents Robin and Rachel Holtom visit Knepp

Knepp Wildland is an inspirational environmental project near Horsham in West Sussex.  In the early 2000s Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree’s 3,500 acre farm was losing money, so they decided to embark on an ambitious idea – to allow the entire estate to go wild. 

After reading Isabella’s book ‘Wilding – The Return of Nature to a British Farm’ we decided to visit the project and booked a two-night stay in ‘Exmoor’, a shepherd’s hut in a wood on the edge of the estate.

Despite having read many favourable things about the Wildland it was unclear if we were going to become Thoreau living the simple life in Walden Woods, or Marie Antoinette playing at shepherding in the grounds of Versailles. It turned out be neither of these, but a very rich, vivid and personal experience.

Our first walkabout was a bit disappointing. The tracks were hard-core farm roads and there were notices keeping us to them saying, ‘No entry, Wildlife only.’ We saw some swans and ducks on the Hammer pond, but we had obviously not chosen a very exciting route and wandered back to the campsite, where we met a man who told us that white storks had just flown over. 

We bought some Knepp venison sausages in the shop and barbecued them over an open fire pit in front of the hut and cooked potatoes in the embers. The magic of the place increased as it grew dark and owls began to hoot.

Wildlife encounters

We awoke in the morning to the disheartening sound of raindrops on the corrugated roof of our hut – fortunately it didn’t last long. Deciding to spend the day following the long – five-mile – trail round the estate, we set off cheerfully only to soon discover we’d taken a shorter route. Continuing anyway, we imm-ediately met a herd of Exmoor ponies and further on a herd of long horned cattle. Grazing animals are essential to maintain habitat diversity and one could see how former field hedges were gradually spreading into the fields establishing a new random pattern of scrub, willow and birch clusters.

Next came a sign: ‘Please do not disturb the storks,’ although none were visible. These birds are the wildlife stars at Knepp, the first white storks to become naturalised in Britain since 1400. Hearing an extraordinary sound, like a football rattle or a very loud woodpecker, (actually a noise made with their beaks) we looked up into large oak tree in the middle of the field and saw them, perched on a nest in the top branches. 

A group of visitors came into the field and we considered listening to the leader talking about the storks, but the journey we’d begun was less organised, itself becoming rather random and wild. 

The Knepp Wilding project is a courageous leap into the unknown and an open-ended experiment. Our exploration was proving resistant to detailed planning and yet our day none the worse for it. Better in fact. 

An alternative perspective

The afternoon was spent the other side of the estate near to remains of a 12th century castle and a large mansion built to a design by John Nash. There were plenty of vehicles coming and going and they made us aware of the massive amount of organising and care needed to run the project – many miles of fencing and large cattle grids to prevent wild deer escaping. 

On the way back we noticed a very charming half-timbered building near a farm which seemed derelict. The man photographing it explained that his grandfather used to work in the building and he then went on to tell us how dreadful the new policy at Knepp was. He claimed it was all about money and the campsite was full of  ‘yuppies.’ Young, upwardly mobile did not seem to describe us, since we’re in our 70s, but we had to own up to being glampers. He evidently had a deep attachment to the place and showed us photographs of it in the 1960s. Discussing the plight of farmers over the last 30 years we wondered if there are more people employed on the estate now than when it was intensively farmed. 

Night noises and avian wonders

The following night there was bright moonlight and an almost continuous unearthly sound – so unfamiliar and prehistoric sounding it appeared to come from another world and continued almost unbroken all night.

That world turned out to be the rutting of large herds of deer, invisible to us though they were. 

Next morning we were up early and packing up one of the wheelbarrows helpfully provided to get kit from cars to campsite. Before driving off we decided to go for a brief final walkabout ending up at the Hammer pond again. As we got there a man cycled by with his dog following. I thought the dog would scare any wild life away but as he cycled past he said: “There are some big stags in the field next to you”. Sure enough, peering through the fence we could see the animals whose sound had haunted the night. Walking back to the car there was only one thing on our list we hadn’t seen, a stork flying. Just then one of these wonderful white birds circled over us in a leisurely fashion and disappeared.

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is published by Picador.

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