The last time I visited the Knepp Estate was the weekend following the UK vote to leave the European Union in June 2016. It was the perfect setting to try to make sense of what had just had happened and consider the implications for nature conservation. The sun shone as we explored the 3,500 acre former intensive arable and dairy farm which famously had been transformed through rewilding by its owners Sir Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree. We were shown the chrysalis of a purple emperor butterfly on a sallow tree, admired Tamworth pigs roaming in the woods, watched Daubenton's bats skim over the Knepp lake and listened to the turr of the turtle dove.
Now, Isabella has told the Knepp story in a new book called 'Wilding'. While I knew some of the Knepp backstory, it was genuinely exciting to read about the trials, tribulations and triumphs that the family had experienced over the past twenty years. What they have achieved takes courage, drive and bloody-mindedness to overcome local resistance and regulators that didn't quite know what to make of the plans that had been devised.
Knepp is brilliantly disruptive and, like George Monbiot's book 'Feral', has challenged traditional farming and nature conservation thinking. I welcome that. Any sector needs to be able to embrace challenge and rewilding has triggered very healthy debate within NGOs including the RSPB. Over the last few years, in response to this surge in interest, we've undertaken a literature review of the nature conservation impacts of rewildling and have developed a position that has guided us through the debates that are often quite polarised.
The RSPB wants to have the maximum impact for nature with the finite resources we have. So, rewilding (the restoration of ecosystem services through increasingly passive management over time) can be a useful tool to meet our objectives. Yet, the opportunity for rewilding or anything close to rewilding varies massively according to the context. What we can do at Abernethy in the Cairngorms differs massively compared to what we might be able to achieve in a highly fragmented landscape like Cambridgeshire where we are trying to re-engineer wildlife back into the countryside at places like Ouse Fen (shown in Andy Hay's image below).
Governments across the UK need to match their ambitions for restoring nature with costed action plans. So, as Defra begins to think about how to meet its new target for creating 500,000 hectares of new habitat, it makes sense to learn from what has been achieved by others - whether it is the rewilding work at Knepp or our experience of reversing farmland bird declines on arable farms or converting carrot fields or quarries into functioning wetlands for bitterns, marsh harriers, cranes and bearded tits. We are still keen to learn from Knepp which is why we have recently begun work with the Knepp team to understand the breeding behaviour of its flourishing turtle dove population.
'Wildling' is beautifully written and I hope inspires others to be bold in their outlook and attempt to break down barriers to make things better for nature. At the very least, I hope the brilliant chapter on ragwort change's people's attitude to this much maligned but ecologically important plant.
Have a read and then pay a visit. It'll make you feel better and help you put the world to rights.
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