Visit to Knepp Estate – Wild Conversations

If you’ve read Isabella Tree’s fabulous book, WILDING, then you already know about Knepp Estate and it’s re-wilding project. Isabella and her husband converted their 3500 acre conventional dairy farm to wild land, populating with keystone species and letting Nature be in charge, to regenerate all the damage done by humans. If you haven’t read the book yet, then get it – definitely one of my all-time favorites.

My hubby Ian and I visited in Sept 2019 and fell in love with the wild English Longhorn cattle. We also had some interesting conversations with locals who are still upset about the shift from agribiz to wildland project. Come join us for a tour…

My signage and gate rant

A note about the signage: I recently visited the Knepp website and noticed that they have more information about the paths plus a downloadable map of the footpaths. However, they are still assuming that people will read through the website first. For us, we were having brunch with friends and then realized that the Knepp Estate was not too far away – so we made an impromptu visit and had to ask twice along the way (in the village) to find the entrance. As we drove in, we saw a parking lot and looked for signs as to whether this is where we should park – no signs. So we parked and began walking along the only path that led off from the parking lot. Unbeknownst to us, this was a ‘service road’ and off-limits. So I surmise the parking lot must have been employee parking? But again, no signs on either the parking lot or path.

It was only after we completed a 2.5 hour loop that we found ourselves in what was obviously the main parking lot, adjacent to a barn that had maps of the estate and footpaths, local gifts, snacks, and copies of Isabella’s book (I bought 3 as gifts – it’s a seriously good book).

It’s a shame that the employee (driving a jeep) who told us we were in a restricted area didn’t take the time to solicit our feedback to improve their systems. We do this in our health business all the time and we have made countless changes or tweaks based on customer feedback – it is so valuable!

I know that Knepp has also had issues with visitors leaving gates open and the wildlife getting out. Again, the solution here is not to tell people to close gates, or have more warning signs. How many of you have barn helpers that have been well-trained and still occasionally leave gates open, or not latched properly?

Humans are always going to make mistakes – that’s guaranteed! So you have to develop systems that expect those mistakes to be made. For example, at my barn, I have three gates at the main entrance; one to the hay arena, one to the barn road, then a final one 40 feet down the barn road. Because I also have horses that can undo gates! So even if the barn help doesn’t close a gate properly, I’ve got 2 more gates as backup. Since I instituted that system, there have been no more horses running down highways.

If I were Knepp, I would put industrial strength springs on all my gates that snap those gates closed all on their own. And I would have a 2-gate system (at least) on every entrance. Ideally you’d want an alarm that sounds when the gate isn’t closed and a recorded voice yelling out: “Close the gate!” Or, put staff on rotation to check the gates every hour. Personally, there is no amount of hassle too great if it prevents a stream of wildies from running out into traffic! Can you tell I have a wee bit of horse-escape PTSD??

Self-sustaining forage

At any rate, the most remarkable thing for me at Knepp was that this ‘terribly overgrown/ruined’ wild land just looked like a normal pasture to me! But you can see from Ian’s response in the video, that what British people are used to seeing in their countryside is something that looks more like this:

Bushes and hedges only exist as property markers and the terrain is smooth grass, ideal for sheep farming. There is no regenerative ecosystem in land like this – not for plants, or insects, birds, or animals. It is a completely contrived, human-created environment – manicured into existence for one narrow, short-sighted purpose only.

One of the fascinating details in Isabella’s book was the stocking rates for self-sustaining species. So first you need to have the right mix of keystone species on the land, but then each species has a density rate per acre that allows the animal to be self-sustaining (in her climate) with no hay feeding required! That’s my dream for sure. Bison, for example, require 22 acres per 1 bison. So I would guesstimate a horse like Audelina (at 2,000 lbs) would require a similar amount of land – as I am in the same climate here in the Pacific Northwest, as the UK.

If you’re in a different climate, with different terrain, the self-sustaining density rate is going to differ widely. For example, there’s no way 22 acres in Arizona would provide enough forage to support 1 bison, year-round. I remember equine ethologist, Lucy Rees, who has studied a wild herd in Spain for over a decade, saying that the herd required 100 acres per horse to be self-sustaining year-round. If you find stuff like this fascinating, then definitely get Isabella’s book!

Other great resources include:

Dirt to Soil book by Gabe Brown
Kiss the Ground film (currently on Netflix)
Will Harris’ Soil Regeneration Video (free)
Regenerating Destroyed Horse Pasture (rainy winter climate) – article with photos
Regenerating Stressed Pasture (snow winter climate) – article with photos

As Kesia and I have often discussed, we need someone to write the book or make the film on incorporating these principles into horse properties! Both of us are continually experimenting and improving our systems, so rest assured, when we figure it out, we will share it. I have been collecting video footage for over 2 years now of all my experiments (and failures) and I feel like I’m finally getting closer. If you have any wisdom, experiments, or ideas to share, please leave them below!

Visit to Knepp Estate – Wild Conversations

12 thoughts on “Visit to Knepp Estate – Wild Conversations

  • October 11, 2020 at 6:21 am
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    Ohh would have LOVED to meet you when you were in the UK and just down the toad from us! 🙂

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    • October 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm
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      Next time I go, I will post on FB and try to connect with as many wonderful peeps as I can! Even if we could all gather at one person’s farm and hang out together, that would be awesome 🙂

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  • October 11, 2020 at 8:24 am
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    Well my first thought is this is a remarkable endeavor and it would be amazing to undertake and watch flourish!
    But my second thought is this land and yours in BC are so vastly different then ours here in California! I know you mentioned Arizona but I believe parts of California are slowly turning into something they have not been in the past! It is so dry and the fires and pollution are starting to become overwhelming…year after year!

    It is very risky to leave the land as natural as possible because this means extremely high fire danger! I realize it’s a viscous cycle as clearing the land creates more dryness and perpetuates the problem even more! I see/observe/feel this first hand on our 12 acres!

    I have written before how I make small attempts to try and balance rodent control with Providing predator species…a helping hand ..like the owl box and coming soon …some bat boxes! But the ground squirrel population is so out of balance especially because we clear the land and no longer have dogs! I also see where just next door on my sons now 10 acres …that has not been mowed…or grazed for years…the squirrels are in much smaller numbers! But one spark and he would have the potential to lose everything! The powers that be…advocate for defensible space and it can be the difference between saving or losing your home! Drought concerns also limit the amount of land that we feel entitled to water! It really is a rock and a hard place in knowing how to regenerate the land but yet stay safe! But the horses have given me some guidance…regarding the trees!

    So I have observed the old growth oaks dying all around our area and neighborhood…and I have also observed the ground squirrel holes are over taking the area around the roots and the base of the oak trees! The horses have recently sent me a message to start piling the collected daily poop around the base of the trees to try and add back some soil!

    So far the two trees I have concentrated this on in their paddock are staying clear of squirrels and I am so excited about this! I have started venturing out and dumping on the trees furthest from our home as they are the most disturbed by the ground squirrels! I had previously been trying to use it in our garden and other parts of the acreage to try and regenerate and give back to the soil! But the horses said the trees need it more …right now…so concentrate it there first! I know for sure this is the horses message as I am obsessed with keeping there 3 acre paddock clear of poop daily… so Bullets worm burden stays as low as possible without chemicals! He was infested when we first came together 10 years ago!
    It was very hard for me to pile it around the trees but I can see so far it is deterring the squirrels! An added bonus is it is working like stud piles and now they are pooping more and more next to the trees so it helps with making collection quicker!

    Like you said different environments create different challenges and all we can do is make the changes we feel are safe and helpful! Every little bit helps and if what I can do right now…is help preserve the old growth oaks on our land then that’s huge for me! ✌🏼💚🐴

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    • October 11, 2020 at 4:58 pm
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      WOW that’s amazing wisdom from the horses!! But of course they know! All the animals know what needs to happen to bring about balance – WE are the only animal not listening! Sigh. But you are listening, and then sharing with us. And if even just those of us reading this blog listen and share, together we could put together a climate-based guidebook for other horse owners.

      I believe horse owners are a HUGE overlooked ecological piece. Just here in my small city in Canada, there are 55,000 horses. Imagine if every one of us was actively regenerating the land our horses are on? So let’s ALL just keep listening and sharing!

      I know I have made a TON of mistakes on my horse land thus far, BUT I keep learning and improving, so that’s all that matters.

      What comes to mind for your Cali climate is the film (which I know you’ve seen) called The Biggest Little Farm. Remember their before/after pics?? That entire region was dry, brown, denuded of trees, etc. Didn’t they have a fire outbreak in that film too? But if your property has sequestered water (from the vegetation) then you are more of a fire deterrent, not a hazard. Also, there are certain deciduous trees that are natural fire breaks and nature normally sprinkles them throughout forests – like cottonwood, poplar, aspen etc from the Populus genus, their trunks are literally sponges, filled with water and they don’t contain the highly flammable volatile oils. So if you plant those trees a certain distance from your house and barn, they provide a fire break. My cousin lived in an area in the Okanagan with a very similar climate to central California. Well his property had a whole line of those deciduous Populus trees and you should have seen the aerial photos after the fires! ALL the land on either side of his property black, but his 160 acres untouched because he had Populus trees along the border and also throughout his Pine and Spruce trees. I actually have been collecting info to do a blog post on this… oh to have the time to do everything I want!!

      So I guess the main thing that’s coming to me for you… questions for you to ask your land and horses:

      1. Put aside thoughts of ‘water’ and open to what other materials, animals (poop!), vegetation, etc can help your ecosytem

      2. I’ve read in a few books that trees – through vibration and chemical interaction – can “call rain” so it makes total sense that your horses have directed you to focus on the trees with their frickin ingenious solution! Feel more into, open more to Tree energy… are their other tree species that want to be on your land?

      3. I would put aside thoughts/fear of fire. Have your fire evacuation plan and then let it go. Focus your thoughts/energy instead on supporting and balancing your ecosystem there on your two pieces of land. CREATE the micro-enviro your region needs. Avoiding/reducing fire will be the natural by-product of balancing the ecosystem, it must not be the focus. Document the process in photos and save them somewhere – email them to me every time you have a piece of the journey actioned!

      4. Allow yourself to experiment, make mistakes, feel your way, mis-interpret… and just do your best with what you have! The oaks, manure, squirrels, owl boxes etc show you are already WELL on this pathway, just keep going Michelle xox

      Reply
  • October 11, 2020 at 7:03 pm
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    In the Southeast we have a lot of invasive species that would take over, including a very sharp grass that even goats cannot eat, the infamous kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, and invasive wildlife; starlings, English sparrows, etc. But I like many of your ideas. It would be great if more people wrote about how things progressed with changes from mono-culture to perma-culture.

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    • October 11, 2020 at 7:10 pm
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      Well I’m no expert, but I know that what some people label as “invasvie” others label as plants that have arrived to do a job – a job that is part of the process of bringing balance back to the area, so that it can be a thriving ecosystem again. Isabella talks about this in her book – and how they had MASSIVE outbreaks of “weeds”, the neighbours went postal on them and it was the hardest thing in the world to sit on their hands and do nothing. Two years later, through continual soil sample analysis, they realized those “weeds” were super high in the mineral(s) that were missing from their soil. Once their job was done (balancing the soil through their vital mineral contribution) those weeds disappeared and haven’t been an issue since. So, yes, maybe there would be a takeover period… but of course, this isn’t something that you can do halfway. You either trust Nature to balance herself, or you don’t. For those of us that don’t, or, can’t go through a couple years of no forage for our animals to eat, we have to find a way to collaborate with Nature. It may take longer, but we can eventually arrive at the same place of health and wholeness.

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      • October 12, 2020 at 3:07 am
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        Thank you for quoting this from Isabella’s book, it’s such wisdom, I’m going to share it on my fb page

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        • October 12, 2020 at 1:48 pm
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          It made a HUGE impact on me and SO much respect to them for “sitting on their hands”! Totally changed the way I viewed my horse property and the level of ‘listening’ I brought to the land.

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  • October 12, 2020 at 2:58 am
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    Oh Jini ! I’m just down the road too, not far from Jacqie Howe. How lovely it would have been to meet up. I love Knepp Castle, the back story is incredible, the life that has returned is incredible, species thought lost have returned, it’s incredible, many of us locals feel honoured and privileged to have Knepp so close. I’ve been on 2 of their safari tours and they always show the backstory video. I introduced Jane and Stuart Myers to Knepp and they ran a workshop on equiculture there. The paddock paradise track system as well as the Equiculture system has been rolling out in the U.K for at least a decade, yes, it’s a far cry from your wonderful set up but for the U.K. it’s a lot better than the normal set ups. There are many of us who offer our horses a combination of track and equiculture. I feel an article coming on:) would that interest you, it very much includes the wildlife returning😊😊 let’s talk xx

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    • October 12, 2020 at 1:47 pm
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      Is the backstory video available online? I’d like to link to it.

      And I would LOOOOOVE you to do an article for us!! Absolutely! Write whatever you FEEL – write the article that YOU would like to read – no matter how long it is. You know how long my posts are, but we can also split it up into Part 1,2,3 if needed. And as many pictures as you can put together. Then email it all to: service@listentoyourhorse.com

      How exciting!! And we will definitely do a UK meet-up next time I’m there… 🙂

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  • October 15, 2020 at 9:57 pm
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    Thank you for the video tour and all the great comments!! 2.5 yrs ago I moved to a 5 acre horse farm west of Seattle. It has been an amazing journey of learning and taking my time. I have 3 fenced pastures. One is lovely pasture grass; one has the barn in the middle and I am creating a paddock track and smaller paddocks. My hope for the paddock track is to create a space for my donkeys to move around outside without getting too much grass. The third pasture is rather wet, and it is the Wild Pasture. I am planting native trees and shrubs to develop hedgerows and visual barriers of the farm from the public path into the adjacent park. We have a yearling deer living in it right now which would be okay except it is eating things in my garden I’d rather it didn’t.

    All this to say, I am listening to what wants to happen here, making changes and improvements as I can, and loving the journey. And I am hungry for information about regenerative practices that apply to horse properties and small acreages.

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    • October 15, 2020 at 11:19 pm
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      Sounds absolutely wonderful Barbara! Someday you’ll have to do an illustrated guest post for us so we can see everything you’ve done. I wonder what kind of deal you could strike with the deer… would be interesting to explore! I’m reading a book right now called “A Language Older Than Words” and he talks about how the coyotes kept killing his chickens. One day in utter frustration, he made a deal with them that whenever he slaughtered a chicken (or anything) he would leave the guts etc for the coyotes underneath this specific tree. In return, they would stop killing his chickens. He was totally blown away when the coyotes stuck to the deal – rearranged his life view 😉

      Reply

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