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Deer roam freely at Knepp Castle, as do Tamworth pigs (below right)

Photos: © www.tobyphillipsphotography.co.uk

11 breeding pairs – more than any other site of this size in the country. Cuckoos, too – now conspicuous by their absence in much of the rest of the UK – are plentiful here once again.

The question is, why? What’s happening here that isn’t happening elsewhere? And can lessons learnt here at Knepp change existing conservation practices for the better? The question goes to the very heart of rewilding, what it means as a concept, and its implications as a practice that could be rolled out nationwide.

The key to Knepp’s success is that it is ‘process-led’. In contrast to conventional conservation practice that often targets a particular species such as the lapwing or the bittern, or aims to preserve a particular habitat such as woodland or heath, Knepp is concerned with natural processes, allowing Nature its head. This involves, in a sense, sitting back and simply seeing what happens. It’s a lesson in how not to be a control freak. Inspired by Frans Vera’s groundbreaking treatise Grazing Ecology and Forest History (published in English in 2000), we took on board the theory that grazing animals are key drivers of habitat generation and biodiversity, and introduced red deer, fallow deer, longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs into the project. Roaming freely in natural herds, with minimal interference from us, they are allowed to graze, browse, rootle, puddle and trample as they like; each species, through its different actions, stimulates vegetation in different ways, and thus together they encourage species biodiversity. We have intentionally excluded sheep, a late introduction to Britain from the Middle East. In effect, the ungulates we’ve introduced are proxies of some of the key species of megafauna – like the aurochs, elk, tarpan and wild boar – that would have been present in our landscape just after the last Ice Age, and with which our ecology has evolved. The only managerial role we take – in the absence of the extinct wolf, lynx, wild boar and bear – is as the apex predator, controlling stocking levels. Too few animals, and the land will revert to species-poor closed canopy woods. Too many, and it will revert to species-poor open grassland. But the right density of grazers (and this is something we continue to monitor)

Issue 289

Resurgence & Ecologist

15

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