Tales from the road

Taking flight: a rewilding success story on our doorstep

Pothole knepp c chris bladon2

The last time white stork chicks hatched in the UK, Henry V was on the English throne. The Incas still ruled over Peru, the Moors over much of Andalucia. The Americas was uncharted, unmapped territory.

But 600 years and more later, fledgling storks are flying over the British countryside once again on a pioneering rewilding project which has blossomed over the past two decades, right on our doorstep, just 20 miles from the Pura office.

From unprofitable and ecologically damaging dairy farming, to a couple’s vision for a wilder landscape, and from a vociferous public outcry, to landmark reintroductions of native species, the Knepp Wildland Project has been on quite the journey - one which may well have a ring of familiarity about it.

If we’ve ever taken you see herds of guanacos and rheas roaming free in the grasslands of Patagonia National Park, or if you’re read our stories about the decades of unrelenting dedication and determination on the part of Douglas and Kris Tompkins to make their vision of a wilder, more equitable and economically viable Patagonia into a reality, you’ll recognise every twist and turn of the story that unfolds below.

I’m not sure if Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree have ever been called the ‘British Tompkinses’, but I’m doing it now. Their stories follow a remarkably similar trajectory, springing to life simultaneously on either side of the Atlantic over the past 20 years.

Now seems like a rather good time to tell their story.

A rewilded tapestry

When the UK’s last white storks were first seeing daylight on the roof of Edinburgh's St Giles Cathedral in 1416, all the way down in the Low Weald of sleepy Sussex, the Knepp Estate was a very different place to what it is now. The land was essentially a vast Norman deer park for the elite, hunting grounds of royalty and aristocracy rolling out from Knepp Castle. Today, just a single stone tower from the original structure stands facing the elements, a stone’s throw from the howling traffic of the A24.

Longhorn cattle grazing in front of the remains of Knepp Castle

It was from this relic of another age that I first spied another of its kind back in June, like a vision of Middle Age England rising up to dampen the uproar of modern life. As my wife and I turned our backs to the castle ruin, a white stork soared into view like an avian arrow released from a bow. It was a seminal moment, a private audience with a creature, which the weekend before I was watching through the cameras of BBC’s Springwatch, regular visitors here since the first storks were reintroduced from Poland in 2016.

As the newest arrivals explore their future breeding grounds - a rewilded tapestry of meadows, rivers, lakes, floodplains and woodland pastures - they’ll survey a very different landscape to that which their 15th century ancestors might have seen had they passed by en route from Africa.

But in truth, you need only go back two decades to see Knepp in a very different light and see just how far it has come today.

Digging for victory, farming to failure

As the clocks ticked us all into the 21st century, the estate was a debt-ridden patchwork of arable fields, slaves to the plough and to industrial chemical fertilizer. Stuck on a faltering trajectory that started with the end of World War II, it had little to offer the wildlife.

Having been requisitioned by the UK government to headquarter the Canadian Infantry during the war, once the battlegrounds and skies had fallen silent, Knepp’s land was largely given over to the Dig for Victory campaign to feed a starving nation.

Charlie’s great-grandfather actually co-ordinated the West Sussex branch of the campaign. His great-grandmother and prominent suffragette Trudie Denman directed the country’s 80,000 Land Girls. So it was perhaps inevitable that the medieval landscape would be transformed by the plough and in the following five years, Knepp’s arable land doubled. As food shortages continued into the 1950s, it was all hands to the spade to reduce the dependency on imports. Fallow land was wasted land.

For five decades Knepp trudged uneasily and unprofitably along that same course toward the brink of bankruptcy. First Charlie’s grandparents toiled away against the poor clay Sussex soil - concrete in the winter, porridge-like the rest of the year - and against the more industrialised and efficient farms, all the while in thrall to ECC farm subsidies and losing money hoof over claw. Then Charlie took the reins in 1987, intensifying production, upgrading the machinery and diversifying into yoghurt, sheep’s milk and even ice cream, but all to no avail. For all his good work, the money was still spilling out of the door.

In 2001, Charlie and Isabella decided to simply let go.

Letting go: nature takes the lead

Over the next 20 years they sold off the agricultural machinery, shipped out their dairy herds and allowed the land to go fallow and the soil to degrade to its natural state. In place of neatly ploughed fields came emerging scrub, wildflowers and jay-planted oak saplings, protected by the thorns. In place of tame dairy cows came the wilder Old English longhorn cattle, joined shortly after by a pair of Tamworth pigs and burgeoning herds of Exmoor ponies and red, fallow and roe deer.

Together, these grazing mammals would all act as landscape architects, proxies for the original megafauna - bison, aurochs, tarpan, elk, wild boar and the deers - which once shaped the British countryside, keeping woodland at bay and maintaining the areas of open pasture so necessary for biodiversity to thrive at all levels.

Bringing back, or finding proxies for bears, lynx and wolves was never going to be palatable for the residents and dog walkers of these gentle back roads and footpaths. But the plan is to reintroduce beavers next, the dream is to bring back bison (of which a trial will soon take place in Kent) and the hope is that wild boar will find their way here and decide to set up camp.

The landscape architects of Knepp

The unrestrained chomping of these free-roaming herbivores spontaneously creates new habitats which provides a home to a unique spectrum of species; purple emperor and painted lady butterflies, 441 species of moths, all five UK species of owls, 13 of our 17 breeding species of bats. Best of all though are the tuneful nightingales, charismatic cuckoos and purring turtle doves which provide the spring-summer soundtrack to our regular camping stays and long walks.

Which is to say nothing of the storks, of course.

Why nature matters

But it’s not just the wildlife that benefit. Just as in Patagonia, as well as the obvious joy we derive from all that biodiversity, the rewilding process has created a range of ecosystem services from which we all benefit, whether we own an expensive pair of binoculars or not. The Natural Health Service, as some clever sausage thought to refer to it as, champions the curative effects of nature, with its proven ability to reduce stress, improve mental health and just make us all feel a little bit happier.

Since Charlie and Isabella let nature drive, carbon sequestration, air and water purification, soil restoration and flood mitigation have all been dramatically improved, as measured by DEFRA. Miles upon miles of public footpaths thread their way through it all - our favourite walk tops out at over 10 miles. The languid meanders of the Adur River have been restored and reconnected with 3.5 miles of floodplain.

And yet the successes did not come easily. Each and every landmark, just like the reintroduced rheas and booming puma populations of Patagonia, is hard won. Not least because it seems to me that embarking on a rewilding project is akin to introducing a stick of dynamite into the neatly-ordered offices and quiet living rooms of the unsuspecting folk whose lives you’re about to disrupt, whose culturally-ingrained ideas about rural lives you’re about to obliterate.

So don’t be surprised to find some angry people knocking on your door, not returning your letters and writing poems cursing the day that light bulb of inspiration flashed on above your head.

Backlash and bureaucracy

“Rewilding is restoration by letting go, allowing nature to take the driving seat - giving it the space and opportunity to express itself.”

Isabella Tree

Nature cannot fully express itself when it has targets to meet. Containing thorny scrub and pulling up ragwort because it jars with our notions of neatness, that most British of sensibilities, places limits on an ecosystem. Moulding the land to suit just one keystone species, as our carefully-managed Sites of Special Scientific Interest tend to lean towards, is to directly and profoundly compromise a habitat’s ability to sustain a rich range of interconnected species. But that was Charlie and Isabella’s lot. Those were the battles they fought with local residents, with government bodies and neighbouring farmers.

As Douglas and Kris Tompkins set about rewilding large swathes of Patagonia, the accusations ranged from the outlandish to the implausible, from spying on behalf of the CIA and making a coastal land grab for Argentina, to the establishment of a Jewish state in a damp corner of temperate rainforest.

In Sussex, the complaints were humbler, largely focused on the aesthetics of a wilder landscape. Letters poured in, both through their letter boxes and those of local newspapers, full of laments and pleas for a return to normality. Someone even sent a long poem, quite an eloquent effort actually, to the local paper as a more creative cry for help.

On both sides of the pond, people were simply not ready for what a wilder vision for our countryside would look like.

Ragwort grows unchecked by the human hand

Making memories

“If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.”

Douglas Tompkins

The complaints have died down, all doubts have been assuaged and long-term government support has secured Knepp’s future. In the two years that I’ve been regularly visiting, the project has fundamentally changed the way I look at nature, the way I look at countryside landscapes. It’s even changed the way I look at our garden.

I hope that Knepp can be a model of a wilder landscape. But unless you’re a farmer with a few thousand acres of land going spare, it might seem like there’s little you or I can do today to move that vision closer. Except of course, by celebrating and being grateful for the wildernesses, however isolated, however small, that we find on our rambles and travels. And except, of course, for the choices we make - where to visit, where to holiday, who to give our money to, how we value nature.

But maybe the best thing we can do is to make memories. I’ll never forget the time I turned away from the castle ruin to see that stork gliding overhead. Seeing it in person, watching it open wide its wings and circle effortlessly above the ancient oaks for a few magical minutes, was one of those moments that get etched in your brain, the stories you’re able to tell down to the finest detail, like what you had for breakfast that day (peanut butter and banana sandwiches, if you’re asking). To put it another way, one of those moments that’ll pop up from time to time in a sentence that starts with “do you remember when…”

And I won’t forget that day last month when we gathered near a grand old oak tree and watched three white stork youngsters flapping about in their crowded treetop nest, like giants squeezed into a bungalow, summoning up the courage to explore their brave new world. Onlookers looked on, children fell silent, adults passed on the news and rumours like a giant game of Chinese whispers. For once, just for once, it was more than this damned pandemic that united us.

On nature's side

I wish we could just forget numbers and targets and obsessions about neatness. Sometimes it’s just about creating these special life-enriching moments and shared memories that last a lifetime. I’ll take those moments, those right there, that field, that oak tree, those people, those storks, all that history, the ups, the downs, the doubters, the doers and the couple who reimagined what our landscape could be.

I don’t know what more I can do than just being on nature’s side. If we all do the same, I can’t help but think the world would be a better place. And I think that starts with making the sort of memories you want to cherish and protect, the sort of memories that make you care about what happens beyond your front door. I think that’s what Knepp does brilliantly and I think it’s one of the best things about our kind of travel too.

If you’ve been out tracking wild jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal, seen endangered Scarlet macaws soaring overhead on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula or watched reintroduced Bearded vultures circling above the deep valleys of the Spanish Pyrenees, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Those white storks will soon chart a long, dangerous course down to their homes in Sub-Saharan Africa, along with the nightingales, cuckoos and turtle doves. It’s an epic journey, but one which pales in comparison to the one that brought them back to our shores. I hope they’ll be back here next spring. And I dare say I’ll be here too.

Wherever you find wilderness, be it in Sussex or Patagonia, the bottom of your garden or the jungles of Costa Rica, do make time to be there too whenever you can.

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