Knepp Castle: A Very British Safari
Fallow deer flee as Sir Charles Burrell drops a gear as he attacks a muddy slope at the wheel of his 1953 Pinzgauer. He brings the Swiss military vehicle to a stop in a field on the edge of woodland on the Knepp Estate, close to a herd of Lornhorn, regarded as the oldest pure breed of cattle in England.
He bounds out of the vehicle, and allows us a moment to take in the scenery. The only noise aside from the approaching cattle comes from one of the five pairs of buzzards nesting on the estate, hovering high above us.
“Being part of this project is an amazingly rewarding experience,” says Sir Charles. “The speed that nature has reclaimed the land here is remarkable. Every day brings with it a new discovery and it is a wonderful feeling to observe the changes.”
Knepp is a 3,500 acre estate that stretches from Dial Post in the south to Southwater in the north. The most familiar part of the estate for most people is the ruin of the old castle ruins, overlooking motorists to the west of the A24 in West Grinstead.
The Burrell family has owned the estate for over 220 years, although it is some 800 years since the original castle was destroyed. Sir Charles, or Charlie as he is known, lives in a stunning gothic mansion built by John Nash. He lives there with his wife Isabella and two teenage children, Nancy and Ned.
For generations, the Knepp Estate generated income through arable and dairy farming, but in 2001 Charles embarked on a series of regeneration and restoration projects, with Knepp still undertaking less intensive meat
Sir Charles said: “The farming decline we saw over a ten year period from 1996 had a dramatic impact on us and led us to make significant changes in the way we managed our land. I farmed intensively for 17 years and it got to the point where I wasn’t going to spend another bean on dairy farming.
“The land here is classified as grade 3 or grade 4 agricultural land (farm land is classified on a five grade level, with grades one and two being the most versatile, productive land) and the estate is comprised of relatively small fields. Our land has very specific requirements and is difficult land to farm.
“So we decided the time had come to abandon the way we had farmed. We opened up the estate to land regeneration, wildlife conservation and educational facilities and put into practice new ways of meat production. The projects we have already underway and that we are planning for the future are taking Knepp into a unique position in ecological land management.
“We are designing these projects to explore ways that unproductive ex-agricultural land can be used to benefit British wildlife. Of course, we need to ensure that the Estate brings in money, so we are producing high quality beef, pork and venison.”
The regeneration started in 2001 with the introduction of fallow deer, Exmoor ponies, old English longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs on 750 acres of the estate. The project was so successful that most of the estate was
gradually turned over to the wildlife project. First, the grazing area was extended by 750 acres in 2005, then a further 1,000 acres in 2009.
Some of these grazers - the longhorn cattle, fallow and roe deer and Tamworth pigs - are harvested for meat, sold through Garlic Wood Farm,a family-run business in nearby Coolham.
There are now about 350 deer on the estate. The fallow deer were introduced on completion of a ring fence in February 2002, having been purchased from Petworth and Gunton Parks. Roe deer occur naturally on Knepp but in the past were traditionally culled. However, in the last decade only a handful have been shot, and their numbers have increased.
The English longhorn came close to extinction in the middle years of the 20th century until it was rescued by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Fourteen cows belonging to neighbouring farmer Chris Cook were introduced to Knepp in June 2003. The herd grew naturally and the Burrells ended up buying them from Chris. Now the estate has about 320 cattle split into three herds.
The Tamworth is thought to be the closest descendent of the Old English Forest pig. After World War II, breeding stock numbers fell dramatically - to a point during the 1970's when there were only 17 surviving boars. Stock from Australia was imported, but the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has helped to ensure the Tamworth’s survival.
In 2005 Knepp bought two sows and eight female piglets from a Forestry Commission grazing project and two years later a boar was introduced to the seven remaining sows. In April 2007 the first piglets were born. The pigs have an entirely natural diet, choosing when and where to forage. The estate also has some beautiful Exmoor ponies. Knepp originally acquired six fillies in November 2003. Two years later a colt was introduced and the first foals were born the following autumn.
It is possible that in the future there will be more animals introduced to the estate. The red deer is one animal that Sir Charles would like to bring in, but they need to ensure that the estate can support another herbivore in the winter. The European bison, elk and beaver are other species which may be considered if the circumstances
it is not only the larger animals that have benefitted from the wildlife project. Knepp has seen remarkable success with bird species and many insects. A beetle thought to be new to science was discovered on the estate, and the elusive purple emperor butterfly has thrived in recent years. However, it is not known how badly the population was affected by early summer’s rainfall, which has impacted butterfly populations across the country. Birds including the nightingale, turtle dove, song thrush, white throated sparrow and woodlark have been flourishing, as have buzzards, and the red kite has even made an appearance.
Sir Charles said: “This is an on-going experiment. With the way our climate is changing, we need to understand how best to manage nature reserves. Our experiment is one way of looking at conservation. This wildlife project is the largest of its type in England. It is the only project of its type in private hands so it’s a unique project of great interest to the country.
“What we are doing here will help us gauge what needs to happen in order to revive and restore conservation areas in the future.”
The project marks a significant chapter in the history of the Knepp Estate. People who use the A24 will know the ruin, although you’re unlikely to know of the old castle’s association with one of England's most notorious monarchs, King John. The castle was almost certainly built before 1200, by the lord of the Rape of Bramber, William de Braose or his son Philip, as one of three fortified sites lying north of Bramber. William was at King Richard's death bed in 1199, and at first was one of John's trusted barons.
In 1206 he offered hospitality at Knepp whilst the King was preparing an expedition to France. But two years later, he became a victim of King John's infamous cruel streak. His wife and heir were starved to death in prison and he was hounded to death in exile in France.
The King stayed at Knepp three times between 1209 and 1211, while he was raising money for yet another unsuccessful attempt to regain his lands in Normandy. Nine royal carpenters were sent to carry out repairs in
1210, and a chimney was constructed. He stayed again in early 1215, when his queen, Isabella of Angoulême, stayed on for nearly a fortnight.
In April 1215 the barons began their rebellion and towards the end of the year, as John was trying desperately to gain support, he ordered the return of confiscated property - including Knepp - to the de Braose heir, Giles, Bishop of Hereford. Unfortunately the bishop died before this was done, and the constable at Knepp, Godfrey de Craucumb, was directed to restore the castle to the King's agent.
Months later, as John faced both his own rebels and an imminent French invasion force, Ronald Bloet (the King’s
agent for Bramber) was ordered to burn the buildings and destroy the castle.
The new castle was built for the Burrell family in 1812, but much of it was destroyed in 1904 by fire. As well as destroying the mansion, many notable works of art including paintings by Holbein and Van Dyke were lost forever. (See a separate article on Page 66 of August 2012 edition).
Sir Charles said: “We lost one of the great collections of art in the family, and we lost most of our family portraits and treasures.But to some degree the fire saved the castle. It meant we were able to give a complete, modern renovation to a building which was nearly 100 years old.”
The modern building remains one of the area’s great country homes, and the estate has a large portfolio of properties including cottages, houses, stables, offices and light industrial units. Knepp also hosts polo matches across the estate and has several sites for hire for corporate and private functions, including the occasional wedding.
But it is the wildlife project that makes Knepp one of the most fascinating locations in the Horsham District.