Knepp, West Sussex, July 2019
The footpath runs off Countryman Lane behind a deer-proof gate. In this case it’s keeping them in. On the gate a sign welcomes visitors to the Knepp Wildland Project. A woman with three dogs holds the gate open for us. I’m here with friends visiting for the day from London, where the Knepp narrative of rewilding lowland England and its successes for wildlife are influential. We’ve come for a circular walk on the public footpaths that cross the Knepp Estate.
Knepp is an ancient deer park that, with investment from government and the landowner’s private wealth, is attempting to prove that farming can be done in a way that is much more sustainable and beneficial for wildlife. Critics say that most farmers lack the personal finances of the Knepp Estate and government investment to sustain the same, low-intensity measures to remain in business. Some people just don’t like change. Many farmers in Sussex are tenant farmers, not landowners, meaning they don’t possess the same money to set up a rewilding project in the first place. Many proponents of rewilding argue that farming shouldn’t happen anyway and the land should be allowed to re-establish natural states of woodland, grassland and wetland.
The footpath is lined with stringy hedges growing to a state of woodland. Large oak trees thrust up from the Wealden clay every few metres, the pillars that hold the Low Weald together. Trees like these run all the way west to the New Forest. In one of the hedges a bike has been locked up, purple ribbons are tied to hedge trees at intervals. It’s an indicator: we have arrived in purple emperor butterfly high season. A man with a large telephoto lens marches towards us, his tripod legs splayed like a broken umbrella. He sees that we’re looking up at an oak, where the emperors fly high. He sets his kit up, eyes open wide in anticipation, mouth gaping. He barely acknowledges us.
We carry on, purple emperors flying lower and in pairs, the white markings on their wings translucent in the light as they pass over our heads. Behind a hedge where people are warned not to go, a couple with their dog asleep in the grass watch with craning necks yet more of these superstar butterflies. The man with the tripod reappears on the horizon, spotting the small group, he homes in again like an insect-seeking missile. Further ahead two vehicles are parked on the track, a group of men are standing around a film camera pointed up at the canopy of an oak. One of the men squints into the viewfinder and grips the equipment, ready to shift it when its subject moves. Another man stands back smoking a cigarette, possibly the film’s producer.
‘Seen a blue tit?’ I say.
The smoking man offers a wry smile in response. The camera man takes his eye away from the camera and grins.
Leaving the oaken lane and continuing along the public footpath, we follow a circuit around and meet a couple tuning in to a turtle dove singing beyond the crown of an oak. My friend has just heard her first ever turtle dove in the UK, in six decades of living here, and she’s touched by its turring. This is a bird on the edge of extinction in our great nation. The couple tell us they’re camping and that it’s disappointing to hear the nearby A24. Their expectations of Knepp didn’t include the sound of the combustion engine.
The man says a spotted flycatcher is hunting around the corner from a branch, and so it is, along with a juvenile. This is the first fledged juvenile spotted flycatcher that I have ever seen in the UK, and the first flycatcher in southern England. Like the nightingale and turtle dove, they seem at home here, indeed they have made this piece of the Sussex Weald just that. There is so much chin-scratching, speculation and opinion in nature conservation. When you see results such as these, it’s hard to disagree with the state of a place.