Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Knepp visit: a few days in the savanna of West Sussex

Just got back from a great few days staying on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. Once used for intensive farming and grazing the 3500 acre estate has now been converted into one of the largest rewilding projects in lowland Europe thanks to the vision of Charlie Burrell, the owner of the estate and now chairman of Rewilding Britain. After finding the heavy weald clay tough-going when it came to producing crops, towards the end of the last century Charlie was looking for alternative ways to use the land and generate income for the estate. Having always had a passion for wildlife (he was nicknamed 'Bug' as a boy) a friend recommended he visit the Oostvaardersplassen project in the Netherlands, and it was this trip that inspired him to create his own rewilding project at Knepp.
Purple Emperor log mural at the Go-Down
Viper's-bugloss in the bank next to the car park
So it is that what were once arable crop fields are now teeming with brambles, hawthorn and wild roses. Hedgerows which were once flailed within an inch of their life are spreading and thickening, and roaming freely amongst all of this are the grazers, the drivers of ecology, as resident ecologist Penny Green refers to them. Exmoor ponies, English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and Red and Fallow Deer (along with native Roe) wandering around a landscape largely devoid of fencing, just as their ancestral species would have done some five millennia ago. After just a decade and a half of this project the 'wildlands' of Knepp are already morphing into something incredible.

It really is hard to believe this was arable farmland fifteen years ago
In a way completely alien in comparison to most of the countryside of this part of the world, and yet also strangely familiar - some visitors to the estate have commented they are old enough to remember when more of the countryside looked like this. A time when Turtle Doves, Cuckoos and other farmland birds were thriving. And so far it seems these species are doing very well at Knepp, along with a whole host of other native wildlife. An estimated eleven pairs of Turtles Doves bred last year, while the estate also boasts 2% of the national breeding population of Nightingales since they returned in 2010 - the first time they'd been seen for fifty years. There are also excellent numbers of Barn Owls, Tawny Owls and Little Owls, not to mention Ravens, Hobbies and Spotted Flycatchers, to name a few. It's not just birds that are doing well at Knepp, as it is also famously home to the largest population of Purple Emperor butterflies in the UK, thanks to huge swathes of sallow which have colonised the Oak-lined damp fields which once harboured only monocrops.
Exmoor ponies
Barn Swallow
The obligatory friendly Robin in the camp kitchen

Toad near our tent on the first night, presumably well-fed on the
proliferation of slugs
I had heard so much about Knepp and wanted to visit for some time so was delighted when my girlfriend Kate booked the trip as a birthday present. We'd originally been scheduled to go on a Purple Emperor safari on the Sunday when we arrived, but were informed last week that due to the rubbish weather they had not emerged yet. No matter, as they offered us a place on a general safari tour on Monday instead, plus a reschedued Purple Emperor safari on 2nd July. The site tour was great and really helped us get some idea of the scale of the project here. Penny drove us around much of the southern block in an old six-wheel drive Austrian army vehicle and explained the aims of the project - basically what does happen if a large area of land is left largely unmanaged, aside from the actions of grazing animals? She explained how certain plants dominated but are now being replaced by other species; it must be fascinating to see a landscape evolve year on year like this. Although less than an hour from home, I can only equate some of the landscape at Knepp to the plains of Africa; this was especially the case when we stumbled across occasional herds of cattle, or piglets sleeping in the middle of the muddy tracks.
Longhorn cattle
Tamworth piglets
Hammer Pond - a haven for bats, wildfowl and invertebrates
Under reptile tins we found Grass Snakes and Slow-worms, as Garden Warblers sang in the swollen hedges. Penny also told us how thirteen of the eighteen native bat species are found here, and campsite manager Ryan Greaves kindly loaned us a bat detector which enabled us to have some close encounters with a few. We unfortunately didn't manage to track down a Turtle Dove but it's just great to know they're here and doing okay, for now at least. Perhaps we'll find one when we revisit at the weekend. I was lucky enough to chat to esteemed butterfly expert Matthew Oates a few times during our stay who did manage to find some Purple Emperors in the past couple of days, despite the changeable weather. In fact, the three he saw on Monday were the first recorded anywhere in the country this year. Despite exploring yesterday we unfortunately didn't find any Emperors but we did see good numbers of Marbled Whites, plus my first Purple Hairstreak and Small Skipper of the year.
Cinnabar moth - thriving at Knepp thanks to unchecked spread of
ragwort, their larval foodplant
Purple Hairstreak
I really cannot enthuse enough about how brilliant Knepp is, and how exciting it is to see such a massive swathe of countryside ' going back to nature'. I eagerly await our return visit on Saturday and the many more visits we will, I'm sure, be making after that to see how the place develops over time.
Tawny Owl

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