Wilding a marginal farm

Over the holiday period I enjoyed reading Wilding – The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree. It is the (true) story of how the author and her husband Charlie Burrell stopped traditional farming on  Keppe Castle Estate, 3,500 acres of heavy weald clay in West Sussex, and let it return to nature, with only the occasional nudge from themselves.

Before the Second World War Britain imported about three quarters of the country’s food by ship each year. During the war enemy submarines and warships prevented much of this food from getting in. Fearing food shortages, the British government launched ‘The Dig for Victory’ campaign. People were urged to use every spare piece of land to grow vegetables. More importantly, marginal farmland was switched to intensive crop production and grazing. When the war finished, the country did not return that marginal land to nature but instead farmed it more intensively.

It was this typical marginal British farm that the author’s husband, who had studied agricultural at college, inherited in 1987 at the age of 23. His family had owned the land since it was a medieval deer park. It is situated on the famously heavy clays of the Sussex Weald: poorly draining “marginal” soil that sets like concrete in summer and porridge in winter.

Although intensively farmed since the war it had rarely made a profit. The couple thought that they could turn the business around by investing heavily in better dairy cattle and new technology, but by the end of the century they were deeply in debt and still losing money.

They had little choice but to sell off their farm equipment and dairy herd, letting off two-thirds of their land on contract to a neighbouring arable farmer. The land closest to their home they returned to nature, spraying it first with glyphosate (!) and then replanting it with native grass seeds. Three years later the neighbouring farmer let his contract drop, also unable to make a profit from the marginal soil, and the couple let that land return to nature as well. Slowly they introduced free-roaming grazing animals – cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – to act as proxies for herbivores that would have grazed the land thousands of years previously.

The couple now has 350 head of English longhorn cattle (100 cows and their youngsters), Tamworth pigs, red and fallow deer and Exmoor ponies. Rather than set targets to protect specific rare species, their principle is to allow “natural processes” to unfold. There is no predator control.

As an intensive farm, Knepp lost money in all but two years as a result of both high running costs, particularly labour, but most importantly because of capital investments in new machinery, such as dairy technology or new slurry lagoons or sewage systems to adhere to new legislation.

The ‘wilded’ farm has much fewer capital demands and only one employee. Annual farm income (not profit) is now made up of £120,000 from selling high-grade organic meat, £500,000 from renting former farm buildings to local businesses (attracting 200 full-time jobs to the local economy), £118,000 from renting seven former workers’ cottages and £230,000 from a ‘glamping’ site. The couple has recently started running ‘safaris’ to allow visitors the wildlife and explain what they are doing.

As far as subsidies are concerned, the farm currently receives £220,000 for having its land in the highest level of environmental stewardship scheme and £195,000 in “basic payments” which every British farmer receives via EU funds. What happens to these EU payments after Brexit remains an open question.

The couple admits that not every farmer is as lucky as they are. First, they got their timing right. They sold off all their farm equipment and livestock before the market tanked; as a result they were able to pay off their hefty mortgage, leaving them with no debts. This was partly because the farm has been in the family for generations: Charlie and Isabella had got the land for free, something that many farmers could only wish for. In addition, the EU was at that time just beginning to switch subsidies away from production and more towards ‘setting land aside’, leaving it idle.

Second, the couple was lucky in terms of geography: their farm is conveniently located close to London in the populated (and wealthy) South-East of England. This has obviously helped them with tourist income, as well as enabling them to rent their old farm buildings.

In a way their situation is similar to my own family smallholding outside Canterbury in Kent. As I described in my recent book, our land was worth more to the sports club next door than it was worth as a pig farm.

Wilding is beautifully written and I would recommend it highly to any nature lover. It describes in detail how wildlife has returned to the farm with astonishing results in terms of biodiversity with purple emperor butterflies, turtledoves and nightingales, to name just a few.

I would also recommend the book to any farmer struggling to stay afloat – and I know that many of you are. The author clearly explains how and why their farm failed—it was marginal land that shouldn’t have been farmed in the first place—as well as the difficult steps that the couple took in getting financial support to ‘rewild’ it. The author also clearly demonstrates how they are now beginning to take advantage of the recent trend for pasture-fed meat.*

The book is also important because the author emphasizes the point that grazing animals are—and always have been—an essential part of nature’s heritage. Indeed her most important—and most positive message—is that farming can benefit nature; it isn’t necessarily detrimental to the environment.

The author doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but at least she poses the right questions.

* If I have understood correctly, grass-fed livestock must be fed on grass for 51 percent of their lives while pasture-fed livestock must be fed on grass for 100 percent of their lives.

© Commodity Conversations® 2020

One Reply to “Wilding a marginal farm”

  1. Excellent article,Jonathan .
    I am sharing it with some friends that got into small “nature” farming who might find your article and the book fascinating.There is always something new to be learned.
    Unfortunately, many of my friends are struggling coffee farmers where the same principles might not work in El Salvador.

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