Wild Britain: Knepp Estate is a ‘rewilded’ Sussex farm offering African-style safaris

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‘Is anyone finding this totally intolerable?’, our guide David tentatively asked the group.

I was on a very British safari at Knepp Estate in Sussex, just 45 miles from London, and had been sitting in an open-top hide in the pouring rain for more than an hour.

Unlike watching nature programmes on TV, this kingfisher-spotting demands patience, stoicism and a waterproof coat.

Phoebe Weston went on a very British safari at Knepp Estate in Sussex. In 2000 owners Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree sold farm machinery and left their land (pictured) to its own devices

Phoebe Weston went on a very British safari at Knepp Estate in Sussex. In 2000 owners Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree sold farm machinery and left their land (pictured) to its own devices

Phoebe Weston went on a very British safari at Knepp Estate in Sussex. In 2000 owners Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree sold farm machinery and left their land (pictured) to its own devices

I was in a group of nine that was being shown around by David Plummer, an extremely knowledgeable conservationist and freelance wildlife photographer.

Unfortunately, rain got the better of David’s kingfisher-luring prowess and we saw one for less than a second on our four-hour tour, part of which was spent careering around in an open-sided 1960s Austrian troop carrier.

However, we did spot greater crested grebes, cormorants, coots, a young swan and a gadwall all taking delight in the downpour.

David fondly referred to this unusual mini-wilderness as ‘Sussex’s version of the Maasai Mara’. His Kingfisher Safari is one of several tours available on the 3,500-acre rewilding project, which has seen an unprofitable, intensive arable and dairy farm turned into land governed by natural processes.

Phoebe, 26, and her brother Ini, 29, spent more than an hour sitting in an open-top hide in the pouring rain (pictured). Unlike watching nature programmes on TV, this ‘Kingfisher Safari’ demanded patience, stoicism and a waterproof coat

Phoebe, 26, and her brother Ini, 29, spent more than an hour sitting in an open-top hide in the pouring rain (pictured). Unlike watching nature programmes on TV, this ‘Kingfisher Safari’ demanded patience, stoicism and a waterproof coat

Phoebe, 26, and her brother Ini, 29, spent more than an hour sitting in an open-top hide in the pouring rain (pictured). Unlike watching nature programmes on TV, this ‘Kingfisher Safari’ demanded patience, stoicism and a waterproof coat

Unfortunately, rain got the better of David Plummer's kingfisher-luring prowess and they saw one for less than a second on their four-hour tour, part of which was spent careering around in an open-sided 1960s Austrian troop carrier (pictured)

Unfortunately, rain got the better of David Plummer's kingfisher-luring prowess and they saw one for less than a second on their four-hour tour, part of which was spent careering around in an open-sided 1960s Austrian troop carrier (pictured)

Unfortunately, rain got the better of David Plummer’s kingfisher-luring prowess and they saw one for less than a second on their four-hour tour, part of which was spent careering around in an open-sided 1960s Austrian troop carrier (pictured)

David Plummer fondly refers to this unusual mini-wilderness as 'Sussex's version of the Maasai Mara'. His Kingfisher Safari is one of several tours available on the 3,500-acre rewilding project which has seen an unprofitable, intensive arable and dairy farm turned into land governed by natural processes. Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle grazing the rewilded land

David Plummer fondly refers to this unusual mini-wilderness as 'Sussex's version of the Maasai Mara'. His Kingfisher Safari is one of several tours available on the 3,500-acre rewilding project which has seen an unprofitable, intensive arable and dairy farm turned into land governed by natural processes. Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle grazing the rewilded land

David Plummer fondly refers to this unusual mini-wilderness as ‘Sussex’s version of the Maasai Mara’. His Kingfisher Safari is one of several tours available on the 3,500-acre rewilding project which has seen an unprofitable, intensive arable and dairy farm turned into land governed by natural processes. Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle grazing the rewilded land

In 2000 the owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, sold their farm machinery and left their worn-out land to its own devices. Now, just 18 years later, it is home to 441 species of moth, with more endangered species such as nightingales and turtle doves turning up every year. It’s also home to all five types of British owl, cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, woodlarks, lapwings, yellow hammers and red kites.

Most British people have probably never seen half these birds, many of which come to the UK from thousands of miles away.

We were meant to be staying in a luxury bell tent with a bed ‘handmade from oak sourced on site’. However, such was our luck with the weather that our accommodation blew down in freak winds two days earlier. Instead my brother Ini and I slept in an old family tent that we pitched late on Friday night.

On arrival we had a peek inside the Welcome Hut, which is a wooden alpine-like lodge nestled in a farmyard barn. On the walls were huge antlers and in the corner was a glowing wood-burner surrounded by an eclectic collection of well-worn sofas.

There was local produce for sale as well as quirky postcards and maps of the estate. The guestbook spoke of wonderful wild encounters – 30 fallow deer; 10 red deer; three roe deer and even one marriage proposal… Just 20 years earlier we would have been looking out over humdrum fields of wheat and barley.

Phoebe and her brother were meant to be staying in a luxury bell tent with a bed ‘handmade from oak sourced on site’ (pictured). However, their accommodation blew down in freak winds two days earlier

Phoebe and her brother were meant to be staying in a luxury bell tent with a bed ‘handmade from oak sourced on site’ (pictured). However, their accommodation blew down in freak winds two days earlier

Phoebe and her brother were meant to be staying in a luxury bell tent with a bed ‘handmade from oak sourced on site’ (pictured). However, their accommodation blew down in freak winds two days earlier

Phoebe and her sibling slept in an old family tent that they pitched late on Friday night. Pictured is Phoebe with the tent

Phoebe and her sibling slept in an old family tent that they pitched late on Friday night. Pictured is Phoebe with the tent

Phoebe and her sibling slept in an old family tent that they pitched late on Friday night. Pictured is Phoebe with the tent

It was obvious Knepp was heaving with wildlife from the moment Phoebe opened her eyes on Saturday morning. Within a minute she spotted a kestrel and could hear the low din of birdsong

It was obvious Knepp was heaving with wildlife from the moment Phoebe opened her eyes on Saturday morning. Within a minute she spotted a kestrel and could hear the low din of birdsong

It was obvious Knepp was heaving with wildlife from the moment Phoebe opened her eyes on Saturday morning. Within a minute she spotted a kestrel and could hear the low din of birdsong

Phoebe spotted greater crested grebes (pictured), cormorants, coots, a young swan and a gadwall all taking delight in a downpour

Phoebe spotted greater crested grebes (pictured), cormorants, coots, a young swan and a gadwall all taking delight in a downpour

Phoebe spotted greater crested grebes (pictured), cormorants, coots, a young swan and a gadwall all taking delight in a downpour

Moo-ving sight: Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle that live on the rambling estate

Moo-ving sight: Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle that live on the rambling estate

Moo-ving sight: Pictured is a herd of longhorn cattle that live on the rambling estate

Large grazers are key to the unique ecology of Knepp because they mimic ancient grazers such as auroch (the original wild ox) and tarpan (the original wild horse), meaning the reserve can sustain complex, rich habitats. Pictured are Exmoor ponies 

Large grazers are key to the unique ecology of Knepp because they mimic ancient grazers such as auroch (the original wild ox) and tarpan (the original wild horse), meaning the reserve can sustain complex, rich habitats. Pictured are Exmoor ponies 

Large grazers are key to the unique ecology of Knepp because they mimic ancient grazers such as auroch (the original wild ox) and tarpan (the original wild horse), meaning the reserve can sustain complex, rich habitats. Pictured are Exmoor ponies 

Tree writes in her book that most visitors are ‘gravitated towards the large mammals, their physical presence, lumbering through the landscape at will’. Pictured are some of the red deer




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Tree writes in her book that most visitors are ‘gravitated towards the large mammals, their physical presence, lumbering through the landscape at will’. Pictured are some of the red deer

Tree writes in her book that most visitors are ‘gravitated towards the large mammals, their physical presence, lumbering through the landscape at will’. Pictured are some of the red deer

It was obvious Knepp was heaving with wildlife from the moment I opened my eyes on Saturday morning. Within a minute I spotted a kestrel and could hear the low din of birdsong. A number of insects had managed to sneak between the linings of the tent and juicy black slugs slobbered around on the grass. 

Like many fields at Knepp, part of the campsite is now home to a chaotic mix of thorny scrub and rampant thistles, something not typically considered beautiful. However, scrubland is one of the richest natural habitats on the planet.

Dog rose, sloes and blackberries that grow in scrubland, meanwhile, keep Knepp’s burgeoning bird population topped up over winter months. In medieval times nothing was wasted – the fruits were used for medicine and wine, the stems were made into furniture and baskets.

Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year, is strongly against scrub-bashing. The farm was returning to ‘an older landscape, something that felt more alive… to a time when nature was richer, deeper, all-enveloping’, she wrote. 

Phoebe spotted tamworth pigs (pictured) baiting each other and a testosterone-fuelled red deer showing off to his herd of (seemingly unbothered) females

Phoebe spotted tamworth pigs (pictured) baiting each other and a testosterone-fuelled red deer showing off to his herd of (seemingly unbothered) females

Phoebe spotted tamworth pigs (pictured) baiting each other and a testosterone-fuelled red deer showing off to his herd of (seemingly unbothered) females

 Endless eating, trampling and rootling means nutrients and seeds are dispersed over a wide area. Most of Europe would have been grazed like this in the past – much like Africa is today. Pictured are young Tamworth pigs 

 Endless eating, trampling and rootling means nutrients and seeds are dispersed over a wide area. Most of Europe would have been grazed like this in the past – much like Africa is today. Pictured are young Tamworth pigs 

 Endless eating, trampling and rootling means nutrients and seeds are dispersed over a wide area. Most of Europe would have been grazed like this in the past – much like Africa is today. Pictured are young Tamworth pigs 

Dog rose, sloes and blackberries that grow in scrubland keep Knepp’s burgeoning bird population topped up over winter months. In medieval times nothing was wasted - the fruits were used for medicine and wine, the stems were made into furniture and baskets

Dog rose, sloes and blackberries that grow in scrubland keep Knepp’s burgeoning bird population topped up over winter months. In medieval times nothing was wasted - the fruits were used for medicine and wine, the stems were made into furniture and baskets

Dog rose, sloes and blackberries that grow in scrubland keep Knepp’s burgeoning bird population topped up over winter months. In medieval times nothing was wasted – the fruits were used for medicine and wine, the stems were made into furniture and baskets

The guestbook spoke of wonderful wild encounters - 30 fallow deer; 10 red deer; three roe deer and even one marriage proposal… Just 20 years earlier Knepp was home to humdrum fields of wheat and barley. Pictured is what it looked like before it was rewilded

The guestbook spoke of wonderful wild encounters - 30 fallow deer; 10 red deer; three roe deer and even one marriage proposal… Just 20 years earlier Knepp was home to humdrum fields of wheat and barley. Pictured is what it looked like before it was rewilded

The guestbook spoke of wonderful wild encounters – 30 fallow deer; 10 red deer; three roe deer and even one marriage proposal… Just 20 years earlier Knepp was home to humdrum fields of wheat and barley. Pictured is what it looked like before it was rewilded

Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year, is strongly against scrub-bashing. The farm was returning to ‘an older landscape, something that felt more alive… to a time when nature was richer, deeper, all-enveloping’, she wrote. Pictured is Knepp's scrubland 

Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year, is strongly against scrub-bashing. The farm was returning to ‘an older landscape, something that felt more alive… to a time when nature was richer, deeper, all-enveloping’, she wrote. Pictured is Knepp's scrubland 

Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year, is strongly against scrub-bashing. The farm was returning to ‘an older landscape, something that felt more alive… to a time when nature was richer, deeper, all-enveloping’, she wrote. Pictured is Knepp’s scrubland 

TRAVEL FACTS 

It costs around £330 for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday) in a bell tent during peak season.

Camping costs £17/person and is also available from April until October.

Bookings can be made via Knepp Safaris

On a morning safari with Knepp ecologist Penny Green we drove around the reserve and encountered the large herbivores that graze here. We spotted Tamworth pigs baiting each other, Exmoor ponies cantering through long grass and a testosterone-fuelled red deer showing off to his herd of (seemingly unbothered) females.

Tree writes in her book that most visitors are ‘gravitated towards the large mammals, their physical presence, lumbering through the landscape at will’.

They are also key to the unique ecology of Knepp because they mimic ancient grazers such as auroch (the original wild ox) and tarpan (the original wild horse), meaning the reserve can sustain complex, rich habitats. Endless eating, trampling and rootling means nutrients and seeds are dispersed over a wide area. Most of Europe would have been grazed like this in the past – much like Africa is today.

One thing Tree finds particularly exciting is the speed at which nature has returned. Every year new species are coming back and in another ten years who knows what Sussex’s Maasai Mara will look like.

Pictured is the African safari-style 'Nightingale' tent that's available for guests

Pictured is the African safari-style 'Nightingale' tent that's available for guests

Pictured is the African safari-style ‘Nightingale’ tent that’s available for guests

The bell tents all have  quirky upcycled vintage furniture inside. It costs around £330 for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday) in a bell tent during peak season

The bell tents all have  quirky upcycled vintage furniture inside. It costs around £330 for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday) in a bell tent during peak season

The bell tents all have quirky upcycled vintage furniture inside. It costs around £330 for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday) in a bell tent during peak season

Pictured is the entrance to the campsite where Phoebe and Ini stayed. Camping costs £17/person and is available from April until October

Pictured is the entrance to the campsite where Phoebe and Ini stayed. Camping costs £17/person and is available from April until October

Pictured is the entrance to the campsite where Phoebe and Ini stayed. Camping costs £17/person and is available from April until October

One thing Tree finds particularly exciting is the speed at which nature has returned. Every year new species are coming back. Pictured are resident owls

One thing Tree finds particularly exciting is the speed at which nature has returned. Every year new species are coming back. Pictured are resident owls

One thing Tree finds particularly exciting is the speed at which nature has returned. Every year new species are coming back. Pictured are resident owls

Pictured is owner Isabella Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year

Pictured is owner Isabella Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year

Pictured is owner Isabella Tree, who wrote a book called Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm earlier this year


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