RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Wildlife project breathes new life into estate

Knepp Castle estate is trying to bring back the turtle dove, barn owl, lapwing and English partridge.

The rare butterflies which are under threat these days such as the brown hairstreak and purple emperor are also receiving preferential treatment. The arable land has been turned back into meadows.

The upper reaches of the River Adur which drains this Wealden plateau has been given new meanders (and old ones restored) so that the water meadows will help hold back flood water which otherwise has a tendency to rush too fast to the sea, creating damage on its way. Sea trout can ascend the Adur to spawn in the gravel shallows newly encouraged with added gravel and removal of weir blocks.

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To me it is wonderful to see this sort of care and renewal of habitat, but not everyone agrees.

As a farmer during the second world war, my father would have found it agricultural dereliction.

In his ‘farm’ novels – The Story of a Norfolk Farm and Lucifer Before Sunrise – he chronicled the opposite of the Knepp wildlife project.

He cut down hedges, drained meadows and buried wild flowers under the plough. We were of course in crisis then. U-boats sank our supply ships.

Food was very strictly rationed. We were told to dig for Victory. Father did, turning derelict land into an A-class farm. But even then he was an advocate of organic farming and natural methods.

The people involved in the KWP say we are again in crisis. Modern grain-fed cattle produce meat which is bad for us compared to that of grass-fed animals, as are those at Knepp. Also, farmland nowadays is dangerously low on carbon capture and is being reversed at Knepp. The land is being returned to a much more natural state, with the meadows allowed to be full of wild flowers, currently flowering with golden fleabane on my visit. Ragwort is being allowed to flourish as it is a useful nectar source for bees in high summer according to apiarists who write in the KWP annual report.

Many who love the natural countryside with its wildlife abundance are attracted to Knepp. Among them is Dr Barry Watson, a stalwart of the Sussex Ornithological Society and Pagham Harbour Committee, who has studied barn owls at Knepp for 17 years and has persuaded the estate to put up owl boxes.

Last year he ringed 16 youngsters there. Five pairs of English or grey partridges, a species dangerously low in numbers in these days, have been re-introduced.

The new old-meadows and the 100 kms of hedgerows provide small mammals for these mysterious owls which once upon a time were known as ‘cherubims’. Nightingales have increased three-fold since ‘re-wilding’ (the official term for this regime), with 34 pairs. Hedgerows are being thickened (current thinking is that they should preferably be eight metres wide) to allow this lusty songster, which has inspired poets, composers and writers over centuries, to flourish. Hedges are also a historical boundary marker. Their age in centuries can be assessed by the number of shrub species in them – for example seven species equalling 700 years. Knepp has 23kms of these ancient hedgerows.

All of this (apparently) new thinking within age-old farming industry is too much for some who see it as a destruction of traditional farming values. That is nonsense. My father’s agricultural views had been formed by the dangers of agricultural depression of the early 20th century, two world wars and starvation for the human race. He feared the dangers of pesticides and over-exploitation of natural resources and destruction of wildlife. As soon as the war was over, my father’s attitudes returned to their instinctive base: he returned to his field in Devon (which had also grown crops in the war) and turned it back into a miniature nature reserve.

The experimental work at Knepp is attempting to reconcile both farming and wildlife to provide us with both healthy food and a healthy landscape. We need both if mankind is to survive in the long term.