The other weekend I finally went to Knepp Wildlands Safari, and combined 2 things I’d wanted to do for quite some time – go visit a rewilding project, and go camping!
Knepp Wildlands Safari is part of the Knepp Castle Estate (it’s just south of Horsham in Sussex), and is one of the biggest sites of rewilding in Europe. Rewilding is pretty much as it sounds, taking a large area of land which has been used intensively by humans (usually this means heavily farmed or overgrazed land) and letting it go wild, allowing all the natural plants and animals to come back, and restore the ecosystem. The rewilding movement is also about rewilding people, trying to get us back in touch with the natural world that’s missing in a lot of today’s life. If you can read the photo below, it gives you a good brief overview of Knepp – it’s a 3500 acre area of land, privately owned by a guy called Charlie Burrell who in 2001 decided he wanted to manage his land differently. His grazing animals are longhorn cows and exmore ponies (free to roam this large area of land), the tamworth pigs snuffle around in the fields, and the browsers are red, roe and fallow deer. They are all managed closely to ensure they live in a more harmonious way with the land, which in return is left free to go ‘wild’, encouraging natural plant growth and encourage animals and birdlife back. Its been a huge success.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon. At the campsite, there is what they call the Go-Down, which is a converted barn housing a small shop of local produce, some cosy seating and toilets/shower, as well as lots of info about Knepp and maps of the area.
After orineting ourselves, we were shown to our tent (we’d hired a 4m bell tent, and it was already up, bonus!!) and the stunning campsite. The first part has some permanent yurts and teepees which you can stay in for a fair bit more money, and then on to the main campsite which was massive and had about 10 people in it. There was a converted tin barn which had some washing up facilities and seating, as well as a larger permanent tent with more cooking areas, a few compost toilets and some great outdoor showers! I forgot to take any photos, but you can see some on their website.
Time to get out for a walk! There were a few different trails on our map so we did a combination of some of them to take us around the rewilding project. At first glance, its like any other country walk. But then you realise that you haven’t opened a gate or climbed over a style (they have taken all the fences within the site, just kept the boundary ones so the animals don’t get out), and also that all the fields aren’t full of crops at all, but wild plants. There were bunny rabbits absolutely everywhere which, along with confirmation from the sightings board at the Go-Down, meant lots of stoats and weasels and other predators. We saw tonnes of buzzards (we think there were a couple of nests and some young), some more unusual butterflies, the pigs and the cows, plus all manner of other birds and insects.
Scattered around the trails were these tree viewing platforms, which gave you a great view out across different areas.
After our lovely walk round the site, we came back to camp to cook on our borrowed fire pit (an upcycled car wheel, worked brilliantly). We then went straight back out (torch in hand) for an evening stroll. This is what I was most excited about and what I wish I could do more of because dusk and dawn is when the wildlife is really active. We’d spotted an area earlier which was jam-packed with badger holes and had a tree-platform by it, so we headed for there, via the pond, fields and woods.
We tip-toed silently up to the platform, inched our way slowly up it and sat down for a wait. Badgers are such nervous animals that if we stood any chance of seeing one, we knew we had to be silent. We sat for about 15 minutes as it started to get darker, watching mice on the floor below and listening to owls in the distance (and trying to ignore the ever-friendly local spiders..) until at last our patience paid off and a badger ambled his way across the small ridge right in front of us! We could hear him snuffling away, looking for little grubs on the ground. We did the most silent, pathetic high five, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. He kept walking on, so after a few more minutes we left the tree platform. Those spiders were starting to get way too friendly anyway.
On the walk back, we had bats flying around our heads and more tawny owls in the trees (didn’t actually see any though), plus lot of amazing moths. We were desperately seeking a deer or two, which was starting to seem unlikely, until we realised that the shadows of what we thought were the tall plants in the field were actually moving and, straining our eyes in the dark, it turned out we were sort of surrounded by loads of stags! Couldn’t tell you if they were red or roe, but there were a lot of them, and they all had antlers. Another silent high five. Lots of glaring from the deer. We headed back to camp feeling jubilant, and enjoying being outside in actual darkness. And then to top it all off, we sat down by the tent, opened some wine and saw a shooting star. Mad! Later realised it was the beginning of the Perseids meteor shower. (Apologies for lack of animal photos, it was dark so there are none.)
The rewilding movement in the UK and across the world is growing, with great projects such as reintroducing wolves back into Yellowstone National Park (I fully recommend watching this AMAZING video about the impact of reintroducing wolves, it sends shivers down my spine (in a good way) every time I watch it) or the beaver back into areas of Scotland. The simple irony is that by restoring ecosystems, the natural world fixes a lot of problems that humans can spend millions of pounds trying to fix, and failing. Letting nature get on with what it does best brings back a balance, it takes a substantially less amount of our time and money, allows wildlife to return and flurish, and is good for our health and wellbeing too. There are so many benefits its hard to understand why it isn’t happening everywhere. Councils could just leave areas of grass unmowed, hugely more beneifical for wildlife, cheaper for them to manage and lovely for us to look at and enjoy. But of course, rewilding isn’t good for business or governement so there is a lot of resistance to it. Rewilding champion and journalist George Monbiot is fighting this corner – his book ‘Feral’ was out last year, all about rewidling, and his organisation Rewilding Britain was finally launched last month to bring attention to this conservation movement, and help smaller organisation get involved and start rewilding projects in their area. Its the latest conservation movement, and involves everything from the huge scale projects of reintroducing top predators like wolves, to leaving an area of your garden unmown and ‘wild’ to encourage insects.
I left Knepp feeling inspired and hopeful, refreshed and de-stressed, excited about the animals we’d seen, and lucky to have all this so close to where I live. Exactly what a day out in nature should do to you.