Last week Jo and I attended a meeting at the Knepp Estate down in West Sussex. There, the owners Charlie Burrell and Izzie Tree have devoted their 3,500 acre estate to an ambitious re-wilding project.We took the opportunity to have a walk around some of the estate. Later that evening I enjoyed staying in their lovely yurt which I can recommend to anyone visiting that area.
The thrust of the Knepp project is to take the land out of conventional farming and let it lie fallow indefinitely to see what develops. So it is an open-ended project with no pre-determined goals. Many specialists and groups are monitoring the progress of habitats and species as they change and you can follow progress on the internet. But behind the scenes, as always, there is the underlying concern for financial returns from the land. Can the land qualify for any of the grant schemes? What effects will Brexit have? Are domestic animals, such as Long Horn cattle or Tamworth pigs, which are acting as surrogates for wild equivalents, making the land use eligible for payments under agricultural schemes, and can they be ‘harvested’ in a way that provides an income from the meat, while Man is, as it were, playing the role of top predator (instead of wolves etc) and keeping the numbers at a level that allows the habitats to evolve without decimating the plants? On top of this the estate has a very generous policy for public access and this raises issues of risk assessments (ugh!) and balancing amenity value against providing undisturbed areas for wildlife. It is a tricky act to play, with few precedents to guide them, and flags up the very real pragmatic issues and decisions faced by efforts to ‘re-wild’ areas of lowland Britain. This is a project to watch as it develops. Hats off to them.
We face similar issues here on the farm in west Wales and yesterday I visited the Royal Welsh Show in scorching heat. There I met up with various colleagues and representatives of organisations for updates on woodland management and wildlife management. The group of farmers in the Pontbren project have made bold steps to provide shelterbelts and wildlife habitat on a cluster of upland farms in mid-Wales and I smiled as I recognised so many of the same things we have done here on the farms over the past 35 years which have now come to fruition.
Barbro is up at the farm in Northumberland for two days, getting things ready for when we head up there at the end of the month. So in the evening I sat out on the terrace for a couple of hours with Joy the Munsterlander who was transfixed, sight pointing a rabbit in the meadow in front of us. I had two Gyr/New Zealand Falcon chicks out on the lawn with me. They have been the last chicks to hatch and can just run around now and take an interest in passing house martins nesting above their heads. As I watched, the falcons in the breeding pens started alarm calls and there above them circled a Hobby. It was an adult and was being mobbed by swallows. It is the first I have seen here for many years and was very elegant in its little parries with the swallows.
I was reading a book which I had bought at the Show, on the archaeology of the western Brecon Beacons since the last Ice Age. This is land familiar to me because we ride up there sometimes or fly the falcons. It documented the changes in habitats on this area of the Welsh uplands using dated pollen cores over the last 10,000 years or so since the ice receded. Climate has always been the main factor shaping the flora of these areas, and in more recent times, increasing influence from humans. It helps put into perspective our own efforts in our own very brief human lifetimes and whether one should leave the land fallow to see what evolves, as at Knepp, or whether one should encourage direct change towards specific ecotypes, such as climax deciduous woodland, marshes and meadows, changes which can be brought about within one human lifetime. While obviously one cannot create a 500 year old oak tree in 100 years, it is surprising what can be achieved in ecological restoration in just a few decades with steady work. Many people are astonished when they see the lake here, with kingfishers, water voles, reed beds and beavers, that was a field only 16 years ago.
As I sat there with the falcons who were mesmerised by the dog’s twitching tail, my glance was taken by a scrap of dark brown on the lawn. It was a young pipistrelle bat. This particular bat has been causing trouble lately. Yesterday I found it on the conservatory floor crawling around. I hung it up outside in a cool grape vine. Now it looked comatose, almost dead. So I held it in my hand for half an hour to warm it up. After a while it woke up and fluttered down onto the grass but couldn’t make headway. So I held it again and it took a little water from a teaspoon. But it seemed unable to fly upwards so once it was dark I left it on the grape vine. How do bats cope over this tricky teenage period? Will Mum come and find it?
Down below the meadow I could see big ripples on the pond as the adult beavers started to get busy for the evening. Their three kits are quite active now but generally they are all quite quiet. You don’t hear a lot of squealing and frolicking as with many young mammals, they are actually quite unobtrusive and I can understand how beavers can exist in places for years without actually being noticed.
In the distance I could hear the clamouring of geese and then a bomber squadron of greylags flew over me. First came a skein of eight; this is the family who hatched six goslings in the top beaver pen and who I helped get through the beaver fence when they were young. The second group of six were the family from the lake that are two weeks older and have recently lost one of their goslings. They are leaving the lake for long periods now, but often come back at dusk. Soon they will leave completely for the winter. Maybe their calling this evening was their ‘swan song’. Their ‘goose song’. See you in the spring, guys. Take care!