Just 25 km from the constant buzz of planes taking off at London’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, there’s a very different cacophony of sound.
“When you go out at dawn, you can feel your chest vibrating with the sheer volume of noise,” says rewilding pioneer Charlie Burrell. “That was the big difference: that vibrant noise created by all this life. I had absolutely no idea my land could feel and behave like that.”
From longhorn cattle to Exmoor ponies, deer and Tamworth pigs, for 16 years the Knepp Wildland Project (on the Knepp estate in UK county West Sussex) has been home to grazing animals that are helping to boost biodiversity while also providing sustainable, high-quality meat.
“When you’ve got all these animals running around in this sort of landscape, it begins to feel like scrub-land in Africa,” adds Burrell. “When you see your longhorn, it doesn’t look domesticated. It’s wild.”
Not only are herds of animals roaming free, the project has brought solutions to some of the natural world’s most pressing problems: from soil restoration and flood mitigation to water and air purification, pollinating insects and carbon sequestration.
n 2002, inspired by Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera and his ground-breaking book Grazing Ecology and Forest History, Burrell contacted the UK government’s advisory body for the environment, Natural England, outlining his plan to establish ‘a biodiverse wilderness area’.
Burrell admits making the switch from commercial to wildland farming was nerve-racking, but it has huge benefits beside the boost to biodiversity.
“There are no inputs, there’s no grain, there’s nothing being bought in, so the cost of production just drops away,” he says. “I know that the production isn’t huge, but it’s what the land can sustain. It’s what is able to live all year round without any supplementary feeding.”
In 2010, the project received government funding and is now considered a leading light for the country’s conservation efforts.
The bigger picture
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse came within the top 10 lists of risks in terms of both Likelihood and Impact, making it one of the biggest threats facing humankind today.
And the report concluded: “Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.”
In May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report found that a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, and many within decades.
Wildland farming can be an effective, low-cost method of ecological restoration.
Rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of more common species are rocketing.
Only the surplus of animals that the land cannot sustain are harvested, there’s no soil degradation from intensive farming practices and the amount of carbon locked in the soil is increasing. Knepp could be used as a prototype for rewilding abandoned and over-farmed land.
Burrell says: “We know there are maybe 60 years of harvest left on the planet in the conventional farming systems. Could we look at this landscape in a different way.. enhance it and feel proud about it … What about making it wild again? Isn’t that exciting?”