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Knepp Estate Launches Wild Meat Range

Isabella Tree on the Knepp Estate  (©AAH/Alan Wright)

Pubished 1st April 2022.

The Knepp estate is home to one of the most successful rewilding projects in the country. Having been intensely farmed for generations, longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and red and fallow deer now freely roam the 3-500-acre estate. Knepp Castle is home to Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, journalist and author of the best-selling book, Wilding. AAH met Isabella to discover how the pioneering project could inspire an environmentally-friendly revolution in meat production…

Natural Selection

The success of the rewilding project today owes much to the unprofitability of arable and dairy farming on the estate. For generations, the Burrell family had toiled with low-grade agricultural land on the heavy Sussex clay. 

Fresh out of agricultural college, Charlie Burrell (who took over the estate from his grandparents in 1987) had ambitious plans to revive its fortunes. Taking over the handful of remaining tenancy farms that remained, he used modern agricultural methods in an effort to turn a profit. However, he was fighting a losing battle, with unproductive land producing low crop yields. Most of what was grown was only good enough for animal feed and after 17 years, it was time to consider other options. One idea was to “re-wild” the land. 

Isabella said: “It sounds unromantic to admit, but we weren’t thinking only of the benefits to nature when we started the project. It was ultimately about the bottom line and we couldn’t go on losing money. Selling the land wasn’t an option, as it has been in Charlie's family for 200 years. So, we decided to work with the land, rather than battling against it. That’s when we hit upon the idea of giving it back to nature.”

Pioneering Project

The transition began in 2000, when the estate’s dairy herds (which had consistently been placed in the top 10 in the UK) were sold, along with agricultural machinery. The question turned to what animals to accommodate. 

Knepp was inspired by similar projects on the continent. In Portugal, safer habitats had been created for wolves and the Iberian lynx, while bison had been reintroduced to Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. Isabella said: “Even then, rewilding projects in Europe had shown that large, free-roaming herbivores were the keystone species. They were the triggers for re-establishing habitat and bringing dynamism into an ecosystem.”

“Thousands of years ago, Britain would have been home to free-roaming aurochs (the extinct wild ancestor to domestic cattle) and tarpan (an extinct wild horse), as well as bison, elk, reindeer, wild boar, with beavers in the rivers. We’ve lost some of these species, but their descendants behave in much the same way.” 

“Instead of tarpan, we have Exmoor ponies, and English longhorns instead of aurochs. It is illegal to release wild boar into the countryside, so we have Tamworth pigs instead. These free-roaming herbivores are essentially the managers of the entire estate. Rewilding is really about sitting back and letting nature do its job. If you let boom and bust scenarios play out, unexpected things happen and that’s when you see the magic.”

Purple Patch

Initially, 750 acres was given over to rewilding, but that figure soon doubled and by 2009, the project covered almost the entire 3,500-acre estate. And after twenty years, the magic is there for all to see. 

With red and fallow deer also introduced, the variety of keystone species has led to the creation of a range of habitats, supporting an expanding eco-system. Birds thrive on the estate. Nightingales nest in oversized hedges, while all five of the UK’s owls have been seen there, including the little owl, which gorges on dung beetles that now proliferate across the land. In 2020, white storks that had been successfully reintroduced at Knepp hatched three chicks. The story made headlines nationally, as it was the first recorded breeding in the UK for 604 years. 

But it isn’t just birds revelling at Knepp. As the land regenerates after decades of agricultural cultivation, insects are flourishing too. The rare scarce chaser – a blue-eyed dragonfly – has returned, there’s been a huge increase in beetle variation, and Knepp now boasts the UK’s largest colony of purple emperor butterflies. 

Isabella said: “The big herbivores feed differently and this creates habitats. The ponies have nippy incisors to chomp the tops off thistles; longhorns use their tongue to tear clumps of long grass; Tamworth pigs use their snouts to rootle for earthworms and have even been known to dive for swan mussels in the lake. By disturbing the vegetation in different ways, they are inadvertently creating opportunities for other species of plants and animals of all sizes.” 

“The result of these natural battles is that you have dense, prickly vegetation where nightingales can nest, thick cover for small mammals, beetles feeding on organic dung, birds spreading seeds across the estate and herbivores trampling them into the soil. It all helps to create a mosaic of complex habitats, which is rocket fuel for biodiversity.”

“This has benefits to the wider area that we didn’t foresee. Increased vegetation improves the air quality. The estate now holds on to huge volumes of water during heavy rainfall, protecting farmland, roads and property downstream. Also, water from surrounding farmland gradually flows into Knepp, where the restored soil filters out fertilisers and other pollutants. All of this has largely unseen economic benefits to everyone.”

Lockdown lure

The popularity of Knepp has increased dramatically in recent years. The estate runs ‘safari’ tours, while a glamping and glamping site. However, it was during lockdown that Knepp’s popularity soared, with families enjoying its footpaths and seeking out wildlife. With hundreds of people visiting daily, this presented a dilemma.

Isabella said: “We are aware of the need to get people reconnected with nature. We want to encourage ambassadors for the future of conservation and the best way to do that is to give people opportunities to experience the natural world up close. But equally, we know that low-level disturbance has a massive impact on the feeding habits and social interactions of wildlife. So we need to have areas where wildlife is left alone. You're far less likely to have nightingales where dogs are sniffing around. But if areas to either side of the footpath are left undisturbed, then you'll hear them. Using footpaths makes the rest of the landscape wilder. It’s a balance between keeping the land as wild as possible while also making it accessible. But we want people to know that Knepp is there for them to enjoy.”

Maintaining Balance

While the original purpose of the rewilding project was to stop losing money, its success presented Knepp with a useful new revenue stream: meat production. 

Culling the animals is necessary to control herd sizes, explains Isabella: “In a natural environment, there is a constant battle between vegetation and animals, which needs to be balanced. You don’t want vegetation dominating, as that eventually leads to closed-canopy woodland, which is undynamic in biodiversity terms. Some people think planting trees is the answer to all our problems, but it isn’t. Trees might capture carbon, but they don’t promote biodiversity.”

“You also don't want to have too many animals, as they will stop any trees and thorny scrub from growing and that will result in equally species-poor grassland, like the over-grazed agricultural systems that are commonplace throughout the world. To maintain balance, we need to cull every year and we do that with consideration to the social structures of the herds.” 

“Because we don’t need to supplementary feed the animals or provide them with buildings, this is a sustainable, almost zero-carbon form of meat production, with none of the animal welfare problems of intensive farming systems.”

A cut above

Previously, Knepp meat was sold through local butchers and even through the organic label range at supermarkets. However, to tell the story of the rewilding project and its pasture-to-plate ethos, Knepp Wild Range has been launched, with beef, pork and venison sold directly to customers. The range was chosen by The Times as one of the 33 best luxury foods to buy online, describing Knepp as a “champion of sustainable farming techniques.”

The new state-of-the-art butchery uses advanced humidity controls, with meat hung and dry-aged on the bone before it matures further after cutting. The meat is then frozen in a CUBO2 smart refrigeration system, which has almost zero climate impact and is the largest of its kind in the UK. It is packaged in fully recyclable boxes with sheep’s wool insulation to keep the meat frozen for up to 72 hours. 

As well as popular cuts including rump and sirloin, Knepp is keen to promote lesser-known cuts too. Ian Mepham, Development Manager at Knepp Wild Range, said: “We are all about nose-to-tail eating, valuing every part of the animal to leave no waste. We are helping to revive traditional uses for offal and introducing modern cuts, such as spider steaks.”

“The ‘chuck’ cuts would normally be used for slow cooking, like stews or pot roasts, as it’s more muscular. But the Denver steak is cut from the shoulder blade and is quite tender, making for a delicious, pan-fried steak. We use whole loins of venison and the navel of beef for an unusual twist on bacon too. Both cook and crisp beautifully.”
“As our animals are not fattened unnaturally on grain and protein, the meat has a dense, rich flavour and that natural diet comes through. The Tamworth pigs gorge on acorns in the autumn, giving the pork a strong, oaky taste similar to wild boar, quite unlike the pale white meat you get from intensively farmed pork.”

Pastures new

Red meat is increasingly under attack, because of intensive farming methods used around the world. Herbivores are often fattened up on grain and high-protein supplements, producing a type of fat that is not only bad for them, but contributes to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high cholesterol in humans. Knepp believes its healthier, pasture-fed approach presents a new direction and could bring about positive changes in the wider industry.

Ian said: “Customers are not only concerned about where their meat comes from; they're asking how the animal lived and died. How was it fed? How far did it travel to the abattoir? How was it hung? We’ve even had vegans buying from us, as they can trace the animal’s life journey and understand our ethics. One customer said that her family had been vegan for 17 years, but were delighted that they could now buy red meat they could trace from field to plate. They’re now planning meals to introduce meat into their diet.” 

“Some people buy meat from supermarkets and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but the world can’t sustain us all eating red meat every day. We not only need to eat less of it, but also think seriously about where it comes from.”

Carbon copies

In the wake of her best-selling book, Wilding, Isabella has written articles for leading national publications. Writing for The Guardian, she has challenged the view that humans should  switch to a plant-based diet to fight climate challenge and argued that - done the right way - meat production can help reduce carbon emissions. However, critics argue that low-intensity rewilding projects such as Knepp do not offer an effective solution, as there isn’t enough land to meet global meat demand.Isabella said: “Could we provide enough meat through rewilding systems alone? Probably not. Rewilding projects like ours are never going to cater for intensive food production, as the meat is just a small by-product of a system designed for nature restoration.”

“However, one way you can increase meat production is through regenerative agriculture. This is where animals are moved around the land and are still pasture fed. It’s not the same as rewilding, but it is organic and it is nature-friendly.”

“We don’t know how much meat could be produced if the world turned to regenerative agriculture, as the research hasn’t been done yet. But alongside other initiatives that are gathering pace, such as insect farms, they can contribute to positive change and bring an end to the disastrous industrial ploughing processes involving chemicals and fertilisers, which have been destroying the planet for generations.”

“The key to new food systems is whether they can sequester carbon. Certainly, regenerative agriculture does that. By moving towards pasture-feeding systems that contribute to biodiversity and capture carbon, we can help climate change rather than contribute to it. Knepp ticks all those boxes.”

For further information visit www.kneppwildrangemeat.co.uk