With a total of 3,500 acres in West Sussex, Knepp Wildland is one of the first major lowland rewilding projects in England.
By the end of the 20th century, the land around Knepp Castle was still used for keeping dairy cattle and various other forms of farming, using contemporary conventional methods. Since then, the land has changed dramatically, and nowadays a wide range of rare species can be found here, including barbastelle bats, turtle doves and Anguis fragilis – a species of legless lizzard. It is an important nesting site for nightingales, and purple emperor butterflies breed here. When a white stork couple successfully nested and raised offspring in the rewildering area, it was the first known example of this happening in the wild in England for a whopping 600 years. The Knepp Wildland is also home to introduced wild beavers – the first ones living in Sussex for four centuries.
The Knepp Wildland rely on various free-roaming grazing animals – including both cattle, ponies and deer – to keep the landscape open in a way that aims to loosely resemble how these areas were before humans engaged in large-scale hunting and farming in the region. Focus is on restoring dynamic natural processes rather than being 100% prehistorically accurate about which species that live here.
There is still some commercial farming carried out on the estate, as roughly 75 tonnes of low-input, organic, pasture-fed meat from free-roaming herds is sold in an average year.
- The Knepp Wildland project is recognised as a Verified Conservation Area (VCA) and is a member of the Rewilding Europe Network.
- It hold an Organic Certification from the UK Soil Association.
Visiting Knepp Wildland
Knepp Wildland has 16 miles of public and permissive footpaths and 5 viewing platforms.
For wildlife tourism, the estate offers safari tours, camping and holiday accommodations.
Charles Burrell (since 2008, Sir Charles Burrell, 10th Baronet) was only 21 years old when he inherited the 3,500 acre farm from his grandparents in 1983. The farm surrounded his ancestral family home at Knepp Castle in West Sussex.
For over 15 years, Burrell managed the farm using contemporary conventional farming techniques, and struggled to make it profitable. In the year 2000, he sold the dairy herd and farm equipment to pay back farm loans, rather than take on even more debts in another attempt at increasing production.
In 2002, Burrell received Countryside Stewardship funding to restore the circa 350 acre around Knepp Castle, land that had been used as farmland since the food-shortages of World War II. This was to become a turning point for both Burrell and the Knepp Castle farm.
2001: Turning ploughed land into a meadow with deer
In 2001, after receiving Countryside Stewardship funding, Burrell turned the ploughed land around Knepp Castle into a meadow using grass seeds and local wild meadow seeds. This was not the whole farm; it was circa 350 acres that had earlier (prior to WWII) been a park for the castle.
As a part of this project, the internal fences were removed, and deer were reintroduced from Petworth House (also in West Sussex).
2002-2004: Introducing various grazers and Tamworth pigs
After visiting the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands and learning more about the works of Dutch ecologist Dr Frans Vera, Burrell decided to create a ”hands-off” ecosystem with grazing animals.
Starting in 2002, Burrell introduced free-roaming old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, red deer and fallow deer to his property. The English longhorn cattle were a substitute for the extinct Aurochs, while the Exmoor ponies stood in for the now extinct wild Tarpan horses that also lived here a very long time ago.
In 2003, Burrell received funding from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to extend the restoration to include the rest of the Middle Block and all of the Northern Block.
2009: More grazers
By March 2009, a 9-mile perimeter fence had been put up around the Southern Block, which prompted the introduction of 53 Longhorn cattle, 42 Fallow deer, 23 Exmoor ponies, and 20 Tamworth pigs.
2009: Nesting ravens
In 2009, Ravens nested on rewilded Knepp Castle land. This was the first known raven´s nest there for hundreds of years, and it was hailed as a very good sign for the rewildering project.
2009: Bats, birds and more
There are 18 bat species in the UK, and in the summer of 2009, no less than 13 of them were observed in the Knepp Wildland. Also, eleven birds listed as UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species were recorded, alongside numerous invertebrate species of conservation importance.
2009 was also the year when Purple Emperor butterflies were spotted at Knepp for the first time.
By 2010, studies showed that Knepp Wildland had roughly 1% of all nesting nightingales in the UK. Also in 2010, the project received Higher Level Environmental Stewardship funding.
2011: Turtle doves
In 2011, eleven singing male turtle doves were heard at Knepp.
Populations of turtle dove are in rapid decline across Europe, including the United Kingdom. In Europe, their numbers declined by 78% in 1980-2013.
2012: Sea Trout migration
In 2012, the Environment Agency removed the largest weir (low head dam) on the River Adur and disabled the rest. Within a year, Sea Trout was noticed migrating up the river.
2015: Purple Emperor butterflies
At Knepp Wildland, Purple Emperor butterflies were spotted for the first time in 2009. By 2015, Knepp was home to the largest breeding colony of Purple Emperors in the country.
2015-2016: Bees, wasps and moths
Between 2015 and 2016, researchers found 441 species of moth, 62 species of bee and 30 species of wasp in the Knepp Wildland, including several species deemed to be of national conservation importance.
2016: Nesting falcons
Breeding falcons were spotted at Knepp in 2016.
2016: Black stork
Black stork (Ciconia nigra) was spotted in the Knepp Wildlands in 2016. This was a big surprise, as this species is a very rare visitor to the British Isles.
2016: The River Adur
Parts of the River Adur that goes through the Knepp Wildland were restored by the removal of artificial banks. Since then, the river has been able to flood the surrounding meadows in a more natural way, which is beneficial for many species. Also, allowing rivers to flood meadows and other wild areas reduces the risk of flooding in built-up neighbourhoods.
2020: Nesting white storks
Knepp Wildland is home to a white stork reintroduction programme, where juvenile birds live in a 6.5 acre pen until they are ready to be released. When white storks nested in the Knepp Wildland in 2020, it was not just a first for the reserve – it was actually the first known instance of wild white storks nesting anywhere in Britain for some 600 years. Not since 1416 has the country had a breeding population of white storks, and those storks nested in Scotland.
2020: Beavers are introduced
When a beaver pair was introduced to Knepp in February 2020, it was done quietly to give the beavers time to settle in without curious interference. However, the male beaver soon draw nationwide attention to himself by overriding the safety measures and going on a swim to explore parts of the river located outside the reserve. There, he was spotted by an understandably surprised dog walker.
The Knepp Wildland Advisory Board includes roughly 30 ecologists.
The story of the Knepp Wildland so far was told in the Richard Jefferies Society Literature Award winning book ”Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm”, published in 2018. It was written by Charles Burrell´s wife, the travel journalist Isabella Tree.
- 2015 People Environment Achievement (PEA) award for Nature
- 2015 Innovative & Novel Project award in the UK River Prize for the River Adur restoration project
- 2017 Anders Wall Award for special contribution to the rural environment in the European Union
- 2017 Gold, Best Guided Tour of the Year, Beautiful South Awards
- Outstanding example of landscape-scale restoration in the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.