Most people don’t walk through kilometres of scrubby pasture on a regular basis but Tom Forward does since he is an ecologist at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, home to an ambitious “wilding” project which has received a large amount of media attention in recent years due to the rare and unusual species turning up. Today Tom is taking us on a tour of the southern block of the estate, where a few years after the fields were left fallow, small numbers of traditional livestock were introduced as a kind of large-scale conservation grazing experiment.
Somewhere in this scruffy Serengeti there are Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Red deer, Roe deer, Fallow deer and ginger Tamworth pigs. Although while entering the jungle of blackthorn, hawthorn and battered dog rose, there is evidence of these animals quite literally below your feet and above your head in the form of invertebrate-infested piles of horse manure and vast gaps through dense hedges, the animals themselves remain out of sight, elusive.
Tom takes us through a field of coarse grasses and ragwort, the latter he explains to be vital component of the messy dynamic ecosystem at Knepp as its golden flowers provide an abundance of nectar throughout the summer. In addition, it’s one of the main food plants for the brightly coloured Cinnabar moth, whose yellow and black caterpillars we see below a young ash tree growing up protected by the unpalatable, thorny scrub. Tom also tells us how, despite its value for biodiversity, ragwort is a despised plant pulled up from almost wherever it grows in the name of protecting livestock. Yet it only really poses a threat when cut and dried for hay.
Further on we enter a large copse where there has been significant grazing and browsing to the extent that it is seemingly devoid of young trees, scrub or wildflowers and grasses. Tom tells us this area was woodland before the wilding project started and it hasn’t responded especially well to the introduction of the livestock and deer. Sadly many of the woodlands in the UK, even some of the protected ones, now look like this because of high numbers of deer in the countryside. On the other hand, here at Knepp, once the trees fall scrub and grasses can recolonise the open areas and provide a more varied habitat in the long term.
Regardless of the lack of understory in the copse, it isn’t completely lacking in wildlife. We see one of the larger woodland trees has Oak bracket (Pseudoinonotus dryadeus) growing near the base of the trunk, presumably taking advantage of some rotting heartwood within the tree. In addition to this bracket fungus, Tom captures a European hornet that was utilising the same tree’s sap in one of those specially designed bug jars. Like Common ragwort, hornets are a misunderstood creatures. Although their sting is painful, like bees, they are unlikely to sting a person unless provoked. They also carry out the important ecological process of pest control. Where there are healthy populations of hornets, the smaller often more irritating, insects are kept in check.
We exit the copse and enter the scrubland again, here we come across a field full of Longhorn cattle. The cattle are mainly brown with patches of grey/white prominent around the face, at this time of year their coats are clean and glossy and perhaps unsurprisingly, they have long, twisted horns. In additional to being a visual spectacle, the cattle are also part of the ecosystem, their dung alone supports an entire micro-ecosystem. Dung beetles, specialist plants, invertebrates and the bird species that feed on large invertebrates, all rely on the dull, crusty pile of different shades of brown. Despite the increase in cattle over time, the amount of invertebrate-rich cow pats has declined due to wormers in more intensive systems that prevent the proper development of the dung beetle larvae.
Beyond the cattle we turn to make out way back but this time through the plantation woods. On the way Tom points out and shows us the reptiles underneath the corrugated steel. There are a couple of Slow worms and many Grass snakes. The Slow worms were particularly interesting because even the larger one we saw, that was about a foot long, could have been 20 years old, since Slow worms are not especially fast growing. Further along, beyond the plantation we then saw the product of one of the most exciting projects on the estate.
White storks were once widespread in England as they still are in parts of Europe where traditional farming systems are still widespread. However, due to a combination of habitat loss and hunting they went extinct in the UK a few centuries back. After the Knepp estate was ‘wilded’ a Black stork and a White stork had unexpectedly visited the estate from mainland Europe. It was these visits that encouraged a White stork project on the estate to begin. Injured White storks unable to fly were placed in an enclosure on the estate and it is the offspring of these storks and some other Storks that came by themselves from Europe that make up the Knepp free-flying population.
It was only at the end of the tour that we had a good view of one White stork perched on a nest near the tourist centre. Even from a distance it looked to be quite a large bird, much larger than a heron. The bird had mainly white plumage with an iridescent glint on the black feathers, long red legs and a sharp bill. For me this was the highlight of the tour because I haven’t ever seen a White stork before and it made an excellent way to end the trip.