Rewilding The Farm, An English Experiment In Entrepreneurial Conservation


Starting in May, Amie and I have been living on a dairy farm in the mountains on the northern side of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. We will be here until at least the end of July, brainstorming about the dairy’s future. There is already much to say about that, but we will share that soon enough. For today, just a shout out to fellow brainstormers across the Atlantic. When we first learned of Paul Lister’s initiative, it sounded like a far-fetched experiment. Now we see another experiment further south on the same island:

The magical wilderness farm: raising cows among the weeds at Knepp

You can’t make money from letting cows run wild, right? When Patrick Barkham got access to the sums at a pioneering Sussex farm, he was in for a surprise.

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Wild ponies at dusk. Photograph: Anthony Cullen for the Guardian

Orange tip butterflies jink over grassland and a buzzard mews high on a thermal. Blackthorns burst with bridal white blossom and sallow leaves of peppermint green unfurl. The exhilaration in this corner of West Sussex is not, however, simply the thrilling explosion of spring. The land is bursting with an unusual abundance of life; rampant weeds and wild flowers, insects, birdsong, ancient trees and enormous hedgerows, billowing into fields of hawthorn. And some of the conventional words from three millennia of farming – ‘hedgerow’, ‘field’ and ‘weed’ – no longer seem to apply in a landscape which is utterly alien to anyone raised in an intensively farmed environment.

This is Knepp, a 3,500-acre farm in densely-populated lowland Britain, barely 45 miles from London. Once a conventional dairy and arable operation, at the turn of this century, Knepp’s owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, auctioned off their farm machinery, rewilded their land and, as much by accident as design, inched towards a new model of farming. Some view the result as an immoral eyesore, an abnegation of our responsibility to keep land productive and tidy. Others find it inspiring proof that people and other nature can coexist.

A pair of storks circle in the spring sky, great white egrets stalk the waterways and violet dor beetles – previously unseen in Sussex for 50 years – mine the cowpats on the front lawn of Burrell and Tree’s historic, castellated home. The farm employs a full-time ecologist rather than farm labourers these days. Its advisory board of ecologists and other conservationists help analyse the rapid changes to their land and its animals. These changes are almost always uplifting. They used a drone for the first time to count grey heron nests this year and found 24 rather than the 16 of last year.

This wild nature helps Burrell and Tree have a thriving glamping site and ecotourism business but they are still producing food from their free-roaming, “rewilded” livestock. “It’s just like ranching really,” says Tree. She has just written a book, Wilding, which tells the story of the Knepp’s transformation, and their own personal transformation too. She met Burrell through mutual school friends when she was 18; he attended agricultural college and then, aged 23, inherited the Knepp estate in 1987. His family have farmed this land since it was a medieval deer park but what sounds like an archetypically privileged aristocratic tale is a little more complicated. Burrell inherited the estate from his grandparents, just after the twin blows of the hurricane that destroyed millions of trees in southern England and the Black Monday stock market crash. The farm is on the famously heavy clays of the Sussex Weald. It’s no coincidence that Sussex folk have more than 30 dialect words for mud, from clodgy to gubber: this poorly draining “marginal” soil sets like concrete in summer and porridge in winter, and will never provide high yields of crops…

Read the whole story here.

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