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19th October 2017

Rewilding and the Knepp conference lectures

Knepp Castle Estate

Grazing cattle at Knepp

Jamie Simpson, who carries out arboricultural work at the Knepp Estate in Sussex, writes about the rewilding of Knepp, the influence of Frans Vera, and the Vera Conference at Knepp: ‘Freeing the Landscape: Grazing animals as ecosystems engineers’ (see link to presentations below).

The introduction of free-roaming grazing herbivores, extinct animals and a return to less interventional land management is commonly known now as ‘Rewilding’. It has been a hot topic amongst nature conservationists, land managers and farmers since the publication of Grazing Ecology and Forest History by Frans Vera in 2000 and more recently, promotion in mainstream journalism by George Monbiot.

Knepp Castle Estate

Scrub at Knepp

Debate was sparked in the UK on whether the commonly taught, palynological-led theory of climax closed canopy woodland that runs almost continuously was correct. The idea of dynamic and cyclical tree, scrub and grassland cover influenced by grazing herbivores and other now extinct animals was a new theory which held weight with experienced field ecologists. A turning point in discussion and wider appreciation of the Frans Vera hypothesis was British Wildlife’s additional supplement in 2009.

ATF’s founder Ted Green has long supported the Vera theory due to the fact that most ancient trees can only develop and thrive within open conditions not seen in closed canopy woodland. ATF’s entomologist Keith Alexander gave a lecture at the summer meeting in 2016 on beetle assemblages in the UK that are associated with old growth, saying that this could have only occurred in the Vera model.

Reg Harris

Ted Green at Knepp

The thoughts of Frans Vera started at Oostvaardersplassen in Holland, a project where 6000ha of land were reclaimed from the sea. Naturally occurring Greylag geese and introduced free roaming grazing herbivores were observed as keystone species which drive vegetation succession by influencing species and structure. Numbers of these free roaming animals were naturally regulated by the amount of food available and diseases so creating a constant state of flux.

In 2001 Charlie Burrell, the owner of Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, visited Oostvaardersplassen. Due to a loss-making farming business, he decided that implementing a similar experiment on his estate would make better financial sense. It was an attempt to help wildlife by recreating as near as possible (within the South East) natural processes by non or minimal intervention. The increase in species diversity has been astonishing and the site has become an ever changing and thriving refuge for important species – a nature conservation success story.

Knepp Castle Estate

Veteran trees at Knepp

This summer a conference was held to reflect on the outcomes of 15 years of rewilding at Knepp. Leading national and international ecologists, conservationists and academics participated in lectures and discussion on the subject of rewilding’s achievements, surprises and ideas for the future. The owners of Knepp Castle arranged filming of these lectures in order to share and promote the understanding and discussion of the Rewilding subject. They can be viewed on the Knepp Castle Estate website.

So enjoy the talks courtesy of Knepp Castle Estate. They include lectures from ATF’s founder Ted Green and from historian and conservationist Jill Butler who have both done so much in many different ways for old trees.

Posted by: Jamie Simpson Jamie is an arboricultural and woodland management contractor solely for nature conservation. He also works part time at Knepp Castle undertaking a wide range of tree work, and at Buglife as the Ancients of the Future project officer.

6 Comments | Leave a Comment

    Posted November 27, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    ¡Fantastic, Jamie!

  • Hugh Milner says:
    Posted December 07, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Excellent Jamie, you’re on form!
    I wonder now if all our woods were once Wood-Pasture and never closed-canopy woodland?

  • Pop says:
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    The name is Oostvaardersplassen (not Ooverspladen) Please correct the name.

    • Kate Crook says:
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 4:59 pm

      Thank you for the correction Poppy, I have made the amendments.

  • linda dolata says:
    Posted November 28, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    I went to Knepp with the ATF a few years ago and it was a superb visit-inspirational and informative. I would urge anyone who gets the chance, to go and see for themselves, and also to read Isabella Tree’s book WILDING , which takes you through their initial struggle and present progress.

  • Guy Mapplebeck says:
    Posted December 24, 2019 at 11:44 pm

    This is a ground breaking conservation that demonstrates that there are better ways to farm some of these poor marginal land area. We in Britain, especially those government departments who are controlling policy, need a huge rethink on how we are going to manage our food production and the beautiful countryside that makes up such a large part of the British Isles.


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