In keeping with the novelty of our staff away days – last year spent at Aspinall foundation’s park with Apemanagement drawing parallels between primate and human behaviour, the year before at Stanmer House practising mindfulness and having massages, and the year before at Blaire Estate in the Scottish Highlands learning the bagpipes and tossing the caper – we spent the day on a safari at Knepp Wildland Project, not 30 minutes from our front door in West Sussex.
We were hosted by Penny Green – an ecology consultant, whose sprightly nature wouldn’t have let on that she had been bird surveying since 3am – and kicked the day off with the customary presentations, before heading out into the sun. The weather couldn’t have been better planned: for the first time since the beginning of winter, Sussex was transformed. The oaks, which make up a good proportion of the trees in the area, were the greenest I have seen. The smells were those of summer. The whole place was brimming with birds, bees and bluebells.
Knepp Wildland Project’s story started 30 years ago after Charlie Burrell, at the age of 21, inherited a 1,400 hectare Estate. Having come from a farming family and studied Advanced Farm Management at Cirencester College, Charlie decided the only option was to intensify cultivation in the area and farm it to within an inch of its life. Unfortunately, the clay consistency and low nutrient content of the soil made this difficult and so over the course of 20 years the estate slowly and steadily became buried in debt. Charlie’s dramatic change of heart came about after visiting the inspiring Oostvaardersplassen project in Holland in the 1990s and so began to re-wild the area.
Ten years ago Charlie founded the Knepp Wildland Project. The project aimed to re-introduce animals that would have roamed thousands of years ago before humans drove them to extinction, which, in the grand scheme of the Earth’s natural history, isn’t that long. The larger of those animals at Knepp include wild Exmoor horses, longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and roe, red and fallow deer, but it was the more subtle things – the birdsong, the dainty English bluebells and the smells of wild Britain in bloom – that gave Knepp its enchantment on this particular day.
After the obligatory presentations, we were picked up from the converted barn that we had laid residence to in the morning by an old six by six wheel ex-military truck large enough to accommodate our now ten-person team. The drive took us to a large field next to a shaded pond, where we were treated to a delicious picnic of salads, meats, chutneys, cheeses, ales and wines – all sourced locally. We were given a short lecture by Penny before heading off again in the vehicle.
The rest of the safari took us around the estate where we saw green woodpeckers, nightingales, yellow hammers, kingfishers and all of the aforementioned large mammals. At one point we stopped by some refugia – a meter square piece of corrugated metal, often used for surveying reptiles, which are attracted to it for its warmth and shelter. Penny lifted it up and we saw two grass snakes slither away and over 20 slowworms basking in the heat.
The trip was finished on a viewing platform half way up an old oak tree with a view of the entire estate. It was here that we were met by Isabella Tree, Charlie Burrell’s wife, who had prepared us canapés and prosecco. Her welcoming and unassuming demeanour wouldn’t have let on that she’s actually an award winning author and travel writer, who also runs Fine Cell Work – a project training prisoners in paid, skilled needlecraft; nor that she owns half of this vast estate. The perfect end to a perfect day.