Rewilding and recording - Knepp Estate

Meadows of fleabane at Knepp

Sue L and Rich in our kitchen at KneppA couple of weeks ago the team (myself and Rich Burkmar), plus FSC Biodiversity Manager Sue Townsend and Biodiversity trainee Sue Loughran, were lucky enough to spend a few magical days at Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex.

We were there to teach our three day ‘Introduction to Biological Recording’ course, a course developed by us a couple of years ago. We realised that, although FSC is a great provider of fantastic identification training, often people would leave those ID courses able to identify species but none the wiser as to how to record them. Although we’ve run the course at a few different FSC centres, we decided this time to hold it at a location that would be an extra special draw in itself – Knepp Castle. I’m not going to spend too much time discussing the course, but rather my impressions of Knepp itself.

Early morning on Knepp estateKnepp is the largest lowland rewilding project in the UK. The estate comprises 3,500 acres of land which was previously intensively farmed, although the heavy clay soil meant that farming was difficult and, at times, unprofitable. Just over 15 years ago the current owners, Charlie and Issy Burrell, decided to take a different – and pioneering – approach. They decided to rewild the land. The way the estate is ‘managed’ is very different to conventional conservation. There are no targets for species recovery or habitat creation – it is a ‘hands off’ approach which aims to establish naturally functioning ecosystem. The emphasis is on ecological processes rather than altering management to benefit specific types of plant, animal or habitat.

Wetlands at KneppFor example, the grazing and rootling role that would naturally have been played by large aurochs (wild cattle) and wild boar is instead performed by red, roe and fallow deer, plus longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs which roam freely around the estate. The role of natural large predators such as bear, wolves and lynx is fulfilled by selective culling of the deer and organic beef and pork production from the livestock. But apart from that, the land is left to its own devices. The watercourses on the estate have, as much as possible, been restored to dynamic, natural systems, changing course across the landscape and prone to flooding and drought as conditions dictate.

Meadows of fleabaneAs we walked round the estate, the landscape was certainly different from any I’ve seen before. There were meadows and meadows of flowers – mainly fleabane and thistles, but attractive nonetheless and absolutely humming with flies, bees, butterflies and other pollinators. The grazing of the cattle had opened up areas, and their hooves and the rootling of the pigs had created areas of bare soil, some of which were full of solitary bees, others were filled with water, creating small ephemeral pools. Hedges were growing tall and expanding sideways. The overall effect was one of wood pasture, or wild parkland, and it was beautiful.

What was interesting is that, a mere 15 or so years since arable farming ceased, there was no trace of any crop species. Which presumably shows just how much of a battle it was, and how many chemical inputs and physical interventions were needed, to get crops to grow here. Some arable ‘weeds’ were present, such as scarlet pimpernel, but the crops themselves were absent.

Brown hairstreak on fleabane.  R BurkmarThe results of this approach? Extraordinary increases in wildlife, which buck the national trends. Species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are now breeding, and populations of more common species are also rocketing. The approach also seemed great for the nearby human population too – we saw local people wild swimming, walking, birdwatching, and all of them spoke with affection, knowledge and pride about the estate.

Treetop viewing platformOn the first evening of the course estate ecologist Penny Green gave us a fascinating insight into the estate’s history and its biodiversity. As well as showcasing some of the special species found here, she explained how the aim of the project is to show how a ‘process-led’ approach can be a highly effective, low-cost method of ecological restoration, highly suitable for areas which are unproductive or failing as conventional farmland. Areas such as Knepp can help to support existing nature reserves and wildlife sites, acting as pieces of wildlife corridor or stepping stones, connecting nature together on a landscape scale.

Getting friendly with poplar hawk mothsPenny used to manage the local biological records centre, so biological recording and the importance of turning wildife sightings into records was close to her heart.  Knepp is a well recoreded site, with a combination of ad-hoc recording and structured wildlife surveys helping to build a picture of the area's biodiversity.  So it really was the perfect location for our course!

Learning how to set mammal trapsWe utilised the amazing location as much as possible, putting out moth traps and small mammal traps each evening, using bat detectors, and spending much of the first day walking around the estate, making species records as we went. We were lucky enough to see several brown hairstreak butterflies, and also a lone purple hairstreak.

Dining table at KneppThe pioneering approach of the Burrells is not limited just to the ecological restoration of the land. Tourism is a major part of their business, and we can vouch that staying at Knepp is a unique and special experience! Our course attendees choose whether to camp in the wildflower meadow campsite, or take the more luxurious glamping option in a selection of yurts, bell tents and shepherds huts. The self-catering kitchen and upcycled seating area were lovely and extremely well equipped (down to the basket of hot water bottles for any chilly guests!), and our classroom was a beautiful restored barn. After an aperitif, evening meals were served in the classroom, which was transformed into a fine dining venue by flowers, tablecloths and candles!

Glamping site at Knepp

The values of the Knepp project were apparent everywhere: upcycled furniture, recycling bins, use of natural building materials, sourcing of local, organic food, use of local, organic toiletries in the showers and eco-friendly cleaning products, and well stocked campsite shop selling organic food, drinks and locally produced gifts. We hope to return soon!


If you'd like to know more about Knepp, I'd recommend watching the 15 minute film on their website.

Getting to grips with some botany
Photographing the hairstreaks
Our classroom
Lovely food!
Up-cycled furniture
Summer pudding served at Knepp!


There's a (very highly rated - 5 stars on Amazon) book about the rewilding at Knepp by Isabella Tree (Issy Burrell):