Rewilding at the Knepp Estate

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Kat Evans, Business Development Manager at The Ecology Consultancy visits the Knepp Estate with colleagues and staff from WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff to see the results of a rewilding programme.

“I’ve been interested in rewilding and have been wanting to visit the Knepp Estate for quite some time now, it’s one of the few places where rewilding is practiced in the UK with the project now running a total of 16 years. In mid-May, I finally got the chance when ornithologist Paul James arranged a visit with the hope of seeing or hearing turtle doves, which he had seen on his recent surveys for the estate. It also proved to be an opportunity to catch up with some colleagues from The Ecology Consultancy and WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff, learn what everyone had been up to, share advice and have a fantastic birding day out! Richard Gowing, myself and Paul had all previously worked on the HS2 Environmental Impact Assessment. We’ve kept in touch since and enjoyed Paul’s expert knowledge on previous birding days.

As the Knepp Estate had clay pigeon shooting in the morning, Paul suggested taking us up to Kithurst Hill to see the chalk downland there and hopefully some rarer butterflies – small blues and Duke of Burgundys. We were lucky with the weather and sure enough saw the butterflies. I was particularly pleased as it was the first time I’d seen a Duke of Burgundy. It was also wonderful to see and smell some fragrant chalk download habitat in late spring – covered in cowslips with the first early purple orchids emerging and fragrant herbs like thyme, marjoram and the cucumber scented salad burnet growing in profusion. Botanists Richard Gowing and Rosie Whicheloe got a chance to practice their ID skills. I was particularly pleased when Paul pointed out a spotted flycatcher up in the tops of the tree, a haunched long thin silhouette singing before flying to another tree top, swooping to catch flies en route. Spotted Flycatchers are one of my favourite birds and it was good to learn more about their behaviour.

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After lunch we went onto the Knepp Estate to try and see the turtle doves and what rewilding looked like in practice. Rewilding can be described as a landscape level approach to ecological restoration which focuses on natural processes and improving connectivity rather than management for particular species or habitat. The processes may include the reintroduction of apex predators such as lynx or keystone species such as wild boar or beavers. Recently rewilding has become more well-known thanks to George Monbiot’s book Feral. At the Knepp Estate, regeneration of scrub and woodland has been allowed to take place on what was once arable fields. The regeneration is ‘managed’ by the free-roaming herbivores –deer, pigs and the Exmoor ponies. Currently there are no apex predators apart from humans, so the carrying capacity of the herbivores is controlled by culling.

My first impression was how much scrub there was, especially when compared to the New Forest where herbivores also largely wander freely, but has been criticized for being over-grazed. Here large areas of sallow and patches of blackthorn have sprung up, which certainly seem to have benefitted the nightingale population and we were fortunate enough to hear one. The nightingales are doing so well that the Knepp Estate is now known for helping to support the UK breeding population. Other species which have particularly benefitted are the purple emperor butterfly and the increasingly rare turtle doves.

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Sadly in the end, we didn’t get to see or hear the turtle doves, but we did see a highly respectable 56 birds over the entire day. Highlights for me included finally getting to hear a cuckoo and nightingale this summer and seeing red kites, peregrine falcon (good spot Amber Perrett!) and garden, reed and willow warblers. I also really enjoyed seeing water violet – a beautiful plant growing profusely in one of the many ponds. But perhaps what I enjoyed most was walking through the myriad of different habitats: the sallow scrub, the large overgrown hedges, parkland, ancient woodland, wetlands and ponds and seeing the restoration of the River Adur. The Knepp Estate have created some clever ways to view and engage with the landscape, for example, canopy high viewing platforms – a great way to observe wetlands without being observed, but also to see oak canopy up close. It was a fantastic day and everyone looked very happy to be there. Healthy habitats for people as well as wildlife.

As we wondered back to the carpark, we passed the campsite which looked peaceful; a place to wake up to birdsong and somewhere I hope to stay too, maybe on my next visit to the Knepp Estate. A big thank you to Paul James for organizing a fantastic day out and teaching us about Knepp and sharing your expert naturalist knowledge. Thank you also to everyone who attended and sharing your knowledge and id skills– it was great to see you all outside of the usual office environment!”

 

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