In a world hounded by environmental catastrophe our rewilding project at Knepp Estate, seven miles south of Horsham, shines out as a beacon of hope.
In the first programme of his new Earthshot series, aired on BBC1 this October, Sir David Attenborough presented from one of our tree platforms overlooking 3,500 acres of emerging scrubland, restored wetlands and regenerating trees, and described the miracles that have happened here.
In less than 20 years, since we gave up farming our unprofitable heavy clay land, wildlife has rocketed.
We now have one of the densest populations of songbirds in the country, all five UK species of owls and 13 of 18 UK bats.
Knepp is the only place in the UK where turtle doves – predicted to disappear from our shores within decades – are increasing in numbers year on year.
There are vital public benefits, too. Our restored soils now act as a filter, purifying polluted water from surrounding farms and roads. In heavy rains, Knepp holds water like a sponge, protecting land and property downstream from flash floods.
Regenerating trees and vegetation remove pollutants from air contaminated by traffic and fallout from Gatwick.
Crucially, our soil, vegetation and wetlands are now storing carbon.
But Knepp, on its own, is a drop in the ocean. Without good habitat around us, species that are thriving here cannot expand into the wider countryside. Climate change adds massive pressures to wildlife catastrophically impacted by decades of agricultural intensification, drainage, pesticides and development.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that, for every degree in temperature rise, climate zones in Europe will move 150kms north. That means, at the present rate of temperature increase, Sussex will soon have the climate currently in the south of France; and Sussex’s current climate will be in the borders of Scotland.
Without corridors of quality habitat in the landscape species will be unable to move in response. Current rates of wildlife loss will simply fall off a cliff.
A flagship measure of the Environment Act, which passed into law on November 9, is the creation of Local Recovery Network Strategies to build a national Nature Recovery Network – a ground-breaking measure to halt biodiversity declines and address the climate emergency.
Anticipating this directive, Horsham District Council has commendably, together with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, already scientifically mapped a local network for nature recovery called Wilder Horsham District.
At the heart of this network is Knepp. Next to it is Buck Barn, a greenfield site identified by SWT as containing 30-40 per cent high-nature habitat including rare ghyll woodland, floodplains, ancient oaks and hedgerows, scrubland, and streams that feed into the River Adur.
On old maps this rolling farmland was called Heaven. It currently acts as a flyway for birds and bats travelling between Knepp and St Leonard’s Forest nature reserve to the northeast, and sustains endangered skylarks, yellowhammers, cuckoos and nightingales.
Horsham District Council’s inclusion of Buck Barn in its local plan earlier this year for a 3,500-house development by Thakeham Homes flies in the face of its own Wilder Horsham District plan.
It reveals a planning system at loggerheads with the national drive for nature recovery.
Thakeham Homes’ own claims that it can increase biodiversity on site by 20 per cent are categorically impossible. Once the bricks, concrete and tarmac are in, when the site is awash with noise, light and chemical pollution, and existing habitat is fragmented and impacted by human, dog and cat disturbance, the functioning space for wildlife will have gone and natural connection between Knepp and St Leonard’s Forest will be blocked forever.
The recent announcement by the new Minister for Housing, Michael Gove, is encouraging: brownfield sites will be prioritised over greenfield, more housing will go to the Midlands and the North, and nature recovery networks will be supported. But developers will fight to the bitter end. Great sums of money are at stake here. Until great sums of money start backing nature recovery, as well, and legal protection of nature networks comes into play, none of us can rest easy – least of all younger generations who are set to inherit a world stripped of the very systems necessary to sustain life.