‘Shhh!’ said the guide, and we all stopped, ears and eyes straining. “There’s a cuckoo in that tree over there,” she said. “And a whitethroat in that bush.” I had to take her word for it, as I couldn’t see either of them through the cheap binoculars I’d brought with me.
But the others in the group murmured assent and puzzled murmurs. “Oh,” said the guide. “And that’s the storks again.” Indeed, there it was, the storks flapping their beaks to greet a mate returning to the nest.
This nugget about storks chattering was just one of the many things I learned over a weekend at the Knepp estate in Sussex. I’ve also learned that nightingales make a series of noises that sound like a car with a dead battery one minute and James Vincent McMorrow the next.
Knepp is a 3,500 hectare estate in Sussex. It has a castle – actually two – and all manner of manorial buildings, magnificent old oak trees, old world pubs and all the trappings of a real posh estate. It’s old, but it can also be the future.
About 20 years ago, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree flogged themselves for making Knepp work as an intensive farm. Well, with 3,500 acres, you’d think it would be easy enough to make a living. But the soil, Sussex clay which is like concrete in summer and Somme in winter, was a problem. They farmed not with, but against nature, constantly trying to improve productivity and fertility and increase yields.
Then Ted Green, an expert on mature trees, came to Knepp for advice on the property’s oak trees. The way the property is managed hurts the trees, he said. Plowing down to the trunks destroyed the rich ecosystems around the roots. Another gem I learned from Knepp: Oak trees grow for 300 years, “rest” for 300 years and pass away for 300 years. I often think I could use 300 years of rest.
Gradually, Charlie and Isabella stopped intensive farming and simply let their land run wild. Isabella describes the process, including the initially horrified reaction of her neighbors, in her bestseller Wilding: Nature’s Return to a British Farm (Picador).
Soon the insects returned (Charlie is particularly proud of the dung beetles), and then the birds followed. Turtle doves, which are rare in Britain, found a home at Knepp, as did nightingales. They haven’t had white storks in the UK for over 600 years, there are now seven breeding pairs on the estate, reintroduced in 2020.
“We had so many different groups looking at what we’re doing here that we decided to add camping and glamping to the property,” says Isabella.
Now you can book in a shepherd’s hut, tree house, yurt, bell tent (where we stayed) or just bring your own tent and pitch it in a lovely field with a stand of oak trees and swathes of buttercups. Daisies and Foxgloves.
There is a very well-equipped communal kitchen, bathrooms, showers, a shop selling produce from the estate and various yoga classes and spa treatment options, as well as a lush pond where you can take a dip surrounded by grasses and wildlife.
The glamping options are more on the ‘camping’ side than the ‘glamorous’ side. Our tent had a comfortable bed, a lovely wood stove, and the insidious humidity that camping brings. And although you’re in the midst of 3,500 acres of wild nature, Knepp is on the flight path to Gatwick and there’s a noisy A-road nearby.
But that’s the inspiring story Knepp has to tell, that once you start walking through field after field teeming with life, those little qualms vanish, when late at night you see rabbits hopping your way, when you hear birdsong.
You can simply wander through the estate via marked trails of varying distances, stopping to climb to elevated viewing platforms. But to get a real feel for the biodiversity at Knepp, book a safari with a trained guide.
On an African safari, the “Big Five” to check off your list are elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino. Knepp has deer, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and Longhorn cattle. On our safari we could see some deer but the other three avoided us. We would see evidence of them (their droppings) but no sightings.
The animals were introduced to Knepp thanks to the influence of the Dutch biologist Frans Vera. His theory is that ancient landscapes did not consist of a continuous tree cover, but that large grazing animals prevented the trees from growing in certain places.
Truly wild landscapes are a mix of closed forest and open rangeland, he says. His experiments with this type of rewilding in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Holland had a major impact on how we think about conservation and rewilding. His approach convinced Isabella and Charlie to introduce their grazing animals.
Of course, at Knepp there are no apex predators, no wolves or bears, so the herds are culled by humans. Hence the very good sausages, bacon and other cuts of meat in the Knepp shop.
At the time of our visit to Knepp, Charlie and Isabella had just announced that they would continue to farm, albeit in a regenerative way. They have reserved part of their land for a project based on a symbiosis between cattle and chickens. The cattle will be grazed and driven on, and then chickens will come and fertilize the land again and remove the cattle manure.
“Right now we’re producing biodiversity, with some meat as a by-product,” explains Isabella as we chat at the swimming pond. “Now we want to try to produce meat with biodiversity as a by-product.”
While digging deep into approaches to rewilding at Knepp is easy and very rewarding, there are other things to see and do. The villages of Dial Post and Shipley on the property’s borders have lovely, traditional pubs serving food and there are other attractions nearby.
The Sussex Downs were notable, at least in my opinion, mainly as the place where Sherlock Holmes retired to keep bees. I now learn that Hilaire Belloc lived here and that the notorious typographer and sculptor Eric Gill also lived nearby.
The Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is worth a visit when all the wildness of Knepp gets to be too much. You can also try the Sussex Prairie Garden, about 9 miles away, which is eight acres of tranquil planting.
Or maybe you just want to spend your time roaming this rolling countryside filled with tall oak trees, messy fields, ponds, birds, insects and most importantly life. Wait. Psst! Was that a nightingale?
- Travel by boat and rail via London to Horsham Station in Sussex to reduce your carbon footprint, then take a taxi the final 10km to the Knepp estate. Or fly Aer Lingus to Gatwick Airport (aerlingus.com) or Ryanair (ryanair.com) and take the Southern Rail to Horsham station, a journey of approximately 20 minutes.
- A weekend in a bell tent at Knepp costs £395. Safaris cost from £60 per person. Be sure to book safaris in advance as they are open to non-glampers and fill up quickly. kneppsafaris.co.uk
- There is much to explore in the area including the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft (ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk) and Sussex Prairie Garden, where you can take a willow craft, watercolor or sketching course amidst the natural planting. sussexprairies.co.uk
Three more walks on the wild side
This 56 square kilometer nature reserve in the province of Flevoland has been a major influence on the rewilding movement. The reserve offers a variety of hiking trails across wetlands, pastures and forests. Bird life is plentiful and grazing animals include Heck cattle, deer and Konik ponies. Take a day trip from Amsterdam, about 48 km away. staatsbosbeheer-nl
Dunsany Castle estate, County Meath
Randal Plunkett, 21st Baron of Dunsany has restored 750 acres of his 1,600 acre estate in Co Meath. There are also 550 acres of forest on his land. Since the beginning of the rewilding project, otters, corncrakes, red kites and snappers have returned to the country. You can stay at the Station House Hotel in Kilmessan and book a package that includes a tour of the property. stationhousehotel.ie
Oasis Hotel, Tuscany, Italy
This “hotel” is actually a cluster of lodges that have recently opened in the Oasi Dynamo Nature Reserve, affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund, 80km north of Florence. The reserve covers nearly 2,500 acres and the resort has two restaurants and offers spa treatments and activities. The pine forest is home to deer and wolves. Family packages from €2,800 for four nights. oasishotel.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/sussex-stunner-great-oaks-chattering-storks-and-nightingales-make-knepp-estate-a-unique-spot-for-glamping-41860533.html Sussex wonders: Tall oaks, chattering storks and nightingales make Knepp Estate a unique glamping spot