A Walk on the Rewild Side: Rewilding in Action

Rewilding is growing in popularity as one of the ways to tackle the ecological and climate crises. But what exactly is rewilding? And what steps can you take to rewild your patch of the planet?

Last month we visited the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex to learn more about the rewilding movement and the benefits it can bring. Here’s a summary of our visit, followed by some rewilding eco-actions you can try yourself:

We’d been wanting to visit Knepp ever since reading about the pioneering rewilding project in Wilding by Isabella Tree. The book tells the fascinating story of how the 3500 acre once intensively-farmed estate, which was no longer productive or financially viable, has been transformed into a haven for wildlife by returning the land to nature. Rewilding is different to traditional nature conservation in that instead of focusing on managing the land for specific species or targets, the approach is to let nature have as much freedom as possible to establish a functioning ecosystem. The process of rewilding on a large scale involves a lot of sitting back and seeing what happens, with the help of grazing animals to drive habitat creation and the reintroduction of certain species.

On our visit to Knepp we did a half day walking safari, where a knowledgeable guide took us away from the public footpaths to explore a small part of the rewilded area. Our safari was in the Southern Block, which is 1100 acres in size and consists of 75 formerly arable fields now made up of roughly a third each of open wood pasture, scrub and woodland.

The first thing we got excited about was seeing a white stork feeding its young in a huge nest at the top of an oak tree (this was before we even left the car park!). It turned out white storks have been successfully reintroduced to Knepp and there were several nests dotted around the place. By the end of the day, we were quite used to seeing huge white storks flying about! They make a loud noise, like a sewing machine.

Although white storks are common in Europe, they became extinct in the British Isles hundreds of years ago. They are a part of our ecosystem that the rewilding project aims to restore. The Knepp storks are rehabilitated birds from Poland. They have had some of their feathers removed to stop them flying all the way to Africa, but after a few years the feathers will be allowed to regrow so they can migrate to Africa and hopefully come “home” to Knepp and tell other storks about it! They nest in the tops of oak trees, in nests made from blackthorn twigs. They prefer to make their own nests and rejected the human-made ones! Fortunately, there are lots of old oak trees on the estate, which weren’t cut down in the Second World War (when landowners were offered £65 per tree to help the war effort).

The second thing we immediately noticed was the volume and intensity of the birdsong. Like a dawn chorus on steroids! All the overgrown hedges and self-sown bushes provide perfect habitat for a wide variety of birds. Hearing the birdsong at Knepp made us realise how nature-depleted much of the British countryside really is. In the years since the farmland was left to nature, extremely rare turtle doves have returned to Knepp. We didn’t spot any turtle doves, but a highlight of our trip was hearing nightingales sing!

Nightingales are another rare species which are increasing in number at Knepp, from 9 to 28 males at the last count. They stop singing when they’ve found a mate and we thought we might be too late in the season to hear them, so we were amazed when we heard them singing in the rain! We spent a lot of time in that area and could actually distinguish their song from the other birds’ (our guide also taught us how to identify the songs of blackbirds, robins, chiff chaffs, song thrushes and white throats). Nightingales are little brown birds the size of a robin and though we didn’t manage to see any, hearing them was very special.

It was hard to imagine the land we visited used to be arable fields. There were loads of bushes and trees growing in the fields that have self-seeded from the existing hedgerows eg. hawthorn, blackthorn, dog roses (and lots of brambles).  Some areas were really dense with scrub and it would be easy to get lost! The brambles stop deer eating oak saplings and act like natural tree guards – it takes 7-8 years for an oak to start producing nasty-tasting tannins that naturally stop deer eating it. The acorns are sown naturally by jays, which store them in the ground (like squirrels do) and forget to eat them all.

We also saw a lot of ragwort, which is a controversial plant that has a whole chapter devoted to it in the book! It is seen as being poisonous to horses and cows. However, ragwort is great for loads of pollinators (including cinnabar moths). Grazing animals know not to eat it and would have to eat a huge amount to get ill. The problem occurs when fields are cut for hay or silage and the animals are unable to avoid eating dried ragwort. We’re inclined to agree with Isabella Tree that ragwort should be left as nature intended in grazing areas and not ripped out or sprayed with weedkiller.

The Knepp project relies on grazing animals to naturally manage the land and create habitat. The free-roaming herbivores that have been introduced to the estate are Tamworth pigs, Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies. Wild boar are not allowed to be introduced, so the Tamworths are a close substitute to do the same job. Similarly, Longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies have been selected as they are similar to their wild ancestors that would have once roamed the British Isles.

The pigs were fast asleep when we saw them! They are good for turning over the soil and encouraging dormant seeds to grow. Where the pigs had compacted the heavy clay soil our guide showed us little holes in the ground made by tiny solitary bees called sweat bees and also used by parasitic cuckoo bees. We also saw a bluebell wood that had been decimated by the pigs. Our guide suggested this is more natural and bluebell woods could be considered a monoculture. An interesting point of view of the iconic bluebell wood!

We didn’t see any cows or ponies (the estate is massive!), although we did see fallow deer. Selective culling is carried out when the herds get too big, or a cow gets mastitis. In this case humans are intervening and playing the role of predators, as species such as wolves and lynx have not been allowed to be reintroduced and it is illegal to leave the carcasses on the ground in this country. The wild meat from the pigs and cattle is sold in Knepp’s farm shop, but there is little market yet in UK for horse meat.

If you’re interested in wildlife and nature, we highly recommend a visit to Knepp to see what is possible by rewilding land on a large scale. There are other rewilding projects happening all over the UK (including at Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk, as featured on Springwatch recently), both on private and public land. The vision is to be able to connect all these wild areas across the landscape, to avoid each site becoming an island. There are also promising beaver-reintroduction projects that could lead to beavers making a comeback on a larger scale across the country, and bison are being reintroduced as a trial in Kent.

We think Rewild should be added to the 7Rs (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rehome, Repair, Recycle, Rot)! Here are some rewilding eco-actions you can do to “rewild” your own small patch of land and increase biodiversity. Every action helps and frankly, nature needs all the help it can get!

Let the grass grow – according to research by Plantlife, the optimum time between cuts is 4 weeks if you want lots of nectar rich flowers in your lawn. If you want to encourage a wide variety of wildflowers, leave an area of grass to grow long and cut it once a year in September, with another area left until Spring.

Love the weeds – weeding is probably not your favourite gardening job, so why not relax and let the weeds grow? Or at least be selective about what you consider a weed. Some native flowers can look really pretty in a border, and if you leave the seedheads on they will provide a valuable food source for birds. For example, today Caroline spotted goldfinches feeding on the seeds of forget-me-nots that she’d let self-seed in the cracks on her patio. This recent episode of Gardeners’ World featured a garden designer who lets certain weeds grow, such as herb-robert, so this approach is becoming fashionable and it’s not just greenies like us that are doing it!

Make piles – if you have the space, try leaving piles of dead leaves, twigs and branches, rather than having a bonfire or chucking them in the green bin. These create habitat for all kinds of creatures, including beetles, which are declining drastically because they rely on dead wood to be left on the ground.

Ditch the chemicals – avoid using herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides or moss killers as these can have a devastating impact on wild plants and animals. Check out our Eco-Friendly Gardening Tips for alternatives.

Remove barriers – make holes in your fences to enable wildlife such as hedgehogs to move in and out of your garden, and encourage your neighbours to do the same. Admittedly this is one thing Caroline hasn’t done as she is trying to keep the destructive wildlife (rabbits!) out!

Read the book – If you haven’t already read it, Wilding by Isabella Tree is a must-read if you want to learn about the principles behind rewilding and its benefits for nature and people. Our guide told us that Isabella Tree is busy writing a new book all about how to rewild smaller areas, with practical tips for those of us who don’t own a country estate, which will definitely be added to our reading list!

To conclude, our number one tip for rewilding your garden is to embrace the mess – essentially, don’t be too tidy. This has the added advantage of saving you time as well as helping nature to thrive. If you leave an area of your garden untouched for a year or more, it will be really interesting to see what pops up! For more rewilding inspiration, visit Rewilding Britain.

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