Changing course because a business isn’t profitable, despite everyone working incredibly hard, seems to be a recurring theme in recent posts, and this one is no exception. But once again it is grazing and grassland that have come to the rescue!
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, ten miles or so inland from Brighton, had 600 dairy cows, 4,000 milking sheep, 2,000 acres of arable crops and also bottled milk and made ice-cream – it was an intensive and integrated business.
But cereal yields had plateaued and the heavy Weald Clay was a nightmare to work. All operations such as ditching, draining and hedging had to be done between combining and drilling, as this was the only time the machinery could get on the land.
The Estate has been in the Burrell family for more than two centuries, and in 2001 present owner Charlie, decided to stop chasing the diminishing returns from conventional agriculture.
Inspired by the Dutch grazing ecologist Frans Vera and his work on the effects of grazing large herbivores on forest vegetation, he has embarked on a long-term, minimum intervention re-wilding project. Fourteen years on, this has stimulated an explosion in wildlife, whilst producing fabulous meat from naturally raised and slowly matured livestock.
‘We went from growing monocultures to a whole new culture,” Charlie, told members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association at a recent study tour.
“The 1400ha estate, which is 7km from top to toe, has been split into three blocks, with most of the internal fences removed. Large grazing and browsing animals – there has to be a mix of the two – along with a thriving rabbit population are driving ecological regeneration. Longhorn cattle, Fallow and Red deer, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs (some 16 years old and weighing 230kg) roam where they please, moving nutrients and seeds around wherever they go. Their mouths and dung and the ground disturbance caused by the pigs, are tools that are naturalising the landscape and encouraging flora and fauna to flourish.”
There is no set strategy for how the fields will be managed and the ecological targets are kept deliberately loose. A unique platform for research, changes in biodiversity and vegetation are being recorded, as the once manicured arable fields revert to grassland and scrub.
Each field looks different – the homogeneity so often sought by humans is missing. In one area, 12 species of dog rose have come from no-where; in another a lake provides water, food and habitat for animals, insects, birds and butterflies, including the rare Purple Emperor.
“The Purple Emperor was always regarded as a woodland species,” said Charlie. “But from what has happened here, we know that what they actually need are large blocks of sallow (pussy willow) on which to lay their eggs. The right species is growing in abundance around our lake.
“Similarly we have found that nightingales want an area of low scrub about 8 metres wide to nest in. Because we are providing this, we now have 2% of the UK’s nightingales on the estate.
“But just because these species are thriving here to day, doesn’t mean they will always be here. Nature evolves and changes over time and this will happen here too.”
A ‘gentle’ profit now comes from HLS environmental payments, BSP subsidy, property rental and safaris, camping and nature courses. Sixty-six tonnes (liveweight) of cattle, deer and pigs are finished and slaughtered a year, with some of this being cut, aged and sold through the on-site Garlic Wood Farm Butchery and catering business.
The meat is organic, free range in the widest sense of the word and 100% pasture-fed. Some winters the herds don’t even need hay to see them through. Longhorn steers and heifers fatten from 24 months of age on improved pastures on a more conventional farmlet close to the wilded areas.
Paul Martin who runs the butchery takes around 25 Knepp animals annually and says his customers love the fact the animals live good lives in harmony with the environment. Sales are seasonal, with beef ready from the autumn onwards, and the public wait with anticipation for it.
“Our customers can genuinely notice the difference between Knepp beef and other meat,” said Paul, after he and his colleague Tony, had treated the PFLA visitors to the finest, meatiest, tastiest beef burgers you could ever wish to eat.
“People are always interested in the story behind the meat here at Knepp and want to know how best to cook it. More importantly they always keep coming back, and are prepared to wait, for more!”