Green People’s latest team outing was to the Knepp Castle wildlife safari; no we didn’t travel to the Serengeti, instead we enjoyed a breath-taking safari right on our doorstep in West Sussex.
This is because Green People HQ is situated right at the heart of the largest rewilding project in lowland Europe.
A struggling family farm
The 3,500 acre Knepp Castle estate is owned by Charles Burrell (the Burrell family have lived at Knepp Castle for over 200 years) and was once dedicated solely to farming. However the heavy clay-based soil was extremely uneconomical for growing crops, meaning the farm struggled to break even.
A shift in perspective
15 years ago Charlie decided it was time for a change from farming. Inspired by a trip he took in the 1990s to Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve and rewilding project in the Netherlands, Charlie resolved to give the land back to nature on a grand scale.
After visiting the Dutch project and witnessing its success first-hand, the Knepp Castle estate began its transformation. The first step was to cease using chemicals and fertilisers on the land and to stop ploughing and intensive grazing by sheep and cattle. This stimulated the revival of many species of grass and wildflowers that had lain dormant in the soil for decades.
Restoring the natural balance
Once the shrub land had begun to grow back, select species of animals were reintroduced to the landscape, chosen for their resemblance to the native breeds that would have once helped to maintain the natural ecosystem.
Originally a deer park, the estate reintroduced red and fallow deer to live alongside the native roe deer. As well as deer, Exmoor ponies, Old English longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs were introduced to replace the ancient aurochs, elk and wild boar that roamed the landscape thousands of years ago.
These animals now move freely around the estate, each helping to maintain the land and create a successful, self-sustaining ecosystem by grazing, disturbing the soil and exhibiting their instinctive, wild behaviours.
A home-grown safari
On a sunny afternoon in August the Green People team set out with Knepp ecologist, Penny Green, in two open-sided safari vans - it felt like we were setting out on an African adventure!
As we drove along, the white tails of rabbits disappeared into the undergrowth and fallow deer peered inquisitively through the trees.
Penny took us to find the estate’s characterful Tamworth pigs; Knepp has three sows each with several piglets in tow. The pigs play a vital role on the estate; they rootle up the soil with their snouts as they look for food which unearths dormant seeds and creates new habitats for insects.
As well as the larger animals, Knepp is home to many species of reptile, including adders and slow-worms. We visited a reptile shelter (a sheet of corrugated metal warmed by the sun) and watched as Penny lifted the metal to reveal snakes and slow-worms slithering into the grasses.
For the ultimate wild experience Knepp Castle has luxury camping facilities, including beautifully furnished yurts, bell tents, tipis and shepherd’s huts, kitted out with comfy king-size beds and quirky upcycled furniture. If you want to immerse yourself in nature, book a stay at the Knepp campsite and discover the ultimate treat of listening to the morning chorus while snuggled around a traditional fire-pit.
A world-leading initiative
Since returning to the wild, the Knepp Castle estate is now an important home for many endangered wildlife species including nightingales; 2% of the UK nightingale population resides in the estate’s untamed bushes that are bursting with insect life.
The Knepp Wildland Project is one of the major hotspots for the extremely rare Purple Emperor butterfly, boasting the second largest population in the UK in their 2014 survey.
Read more about butterfly conservation here.
Knepp is also a vital breeding ground for turtle doves, a species that is threatened with extinction due to loss of habitat.
Green People is extremely proud to support this world-leading initiative in rewilding. As tenants on Charlie’s land, a portion of the money Green People pays in rent goes directly to support this amazing project.
The Knepp rewilding scheme relies heavily on the handful of estate tenants including Green People, without whom the transition from agriculture to rewilding would not have been possible.
Green People also stocks the Knepp safari gift shop with organic beauty products to sell to visitors to the estate.