Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

The thorn bush is the mother of the oak

Ms Markontour and I have been enjoying a blissful bank holiday weekend at Knepp Wildland Safari in southern England. We have been wanting to visit since reading Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ a few years ago – an account of how she and her husband, Charlie Burrell, decided to see what happened if nature was permitted to manage itself on their 3,000 acre loss-making farm. The result is the most exhilarating nature site in Britain. A place that echoes all day and night to bird-song, has welcomed back multiple species that were on the brink of extinction in Britain, from the Turtle Dove to the Nightingale, and where bramble and scrub have proven to be the catalyst for abundance, variety and beauty, rather than a nuisance to be cleared away. I could have happily stayed forever.

Arriving at Knepp, which now makes most of its income from tourism, there was no-one on duty at the well-stocked ‘Go Down’ store/reception so we made our own way to Turtle Dove yurt, our home for the weekend. This laidback approach turned out to be wonderfully typical of Knepp, trusting guests to find out intuitively how things work, minimising rules and barriers. The door to the yurt was unlocked and, inside, the canvas rotunda was invitingly decked out in furs and rugs, with a comfortable double-bed decked in blankets, and a small wood stove promising further warmth if needed.

Outside the afternoon air was filled with birdsong, although nowhere near as loud as it would be when the dawn chorus got going from 5.30am the next morning. Close, but not too close, to our yurt we soon found the well-stocked campsite kitchen, where a couple of evenings later we would be baking pizza from dough bought in the camp shop, working out with fellow guests how to stoke the outdoor wood oven up to the required temperature, and cooking to the sound of storks clacking their beaks all around.

Normally we eschew guided tours in favour of exploring under our own steam, but at Knepp joining an organised group meant the right to venture off the paths into the areas designated as ‘wildlife only’, so we had booked on to ‘safaris’ two days running. This turned out to be very much the right decision, because not only did we get to marvel at that which otherwise would have been hidden – such as the primeval new wetland created by Knepp’s resident beavers – but for three hours of each day we benefitted from the passion and knowledge of guides who seemed every bit as excited to be there as we did.

Indeed, talking with the guides helped me appreciate not just the incredible array of birds, mammals and reptiles, but the habitats that have attracted such a cosmopolitan population. Prior to Knepp’s rewilding experiment it had been expertly theorised that the natural state of Britain was to be covered in forest. Rewilding – essentially selling the plough and tractors and seeing what the plants did left to themselves, aided by free-roaming large herbivores like pigs, cattle, horses and deer – has demonstrated something quite different. Natural Britain, it turns out, is an ever changing mix of scrub, brush, woodland and wetland.

Despite having read about this in ‘Wilding’ and listened to several of Isabella Tree’s lectures, I still wasn’t quite ready for the extent of thorns and bramble at Knepp. It’s everywhere, although often dotted around in clumps that give the fields a tufted look – fields, bear in mind, that only two decades ago were growing arable crops. Knepp is now a landscape shaped not by a human farmer, but by grazing mammals. Once our guide had pointed it out, it was easily discernible everywhere that Knepp has a ‘browsing line’ – the level at which the deer, horses and cattle can comfortably graze.

This scrubby, brambly terrain, it turns out, is the ideal state of vegetation for Nightingales (the subject of one of the pilot episodes of the new Markontour podcast). Once so numerous that they serenaded lovers in London parks, between the 1960s and 2010s ninety per cent of British Nightingales disappeared. Now there are at least 34 thriving territories at Knepp, with male Nightingales living up to their name during spring and belting out startling songs all night and for much of the day, hoping to attract the attention of a female upon her migratory arrival from equatorial Africa.

The Nightingale was undeniably the loudest of the birds we heard at Knepp, although a Cuckoo who was equally determined to attract a mate, came close with his morning alarm clock. But if it wasn’t Nightingales and Cuckoos it was Chiff Chaffs muttering their eponymous refrain and, memorably once, a Garden Warbler doing its vocal impression of a coin spinning on a table.

While every human guest at Knepp was visibly mesmerised by the birds’ songs, other animals appeared to treat it as no more than background noise. On a morning run on our last day I happened upon two large, dozing ginger shapes – Tammworth pigs, a mother and piglet, cuddled up against each other above a culvert, their ears and noses twitching only to the stimulus of their dreams.

While many of the loudest birds were so well hidden in the undergrowth that we only ever gained aural evidence of their existence, Knepp’s large stork community put on visual displays throughout the day. On our first morning we watched ten or more of these enormous birds circling on the thermals above the campsite, gracefully gaining height in order to minimise the distance they needed to fly in search of food, and shrugging off harrying Red Kites and Buzzards – great raptors which seemed tiny in comparison.

Later, with the aid of binoculars, we were treated to a mother regurgitating food to her chicks in a nest that was easily two metres wide and spanned two pollarded tree tops. Storks are gregarious birds and like to be visible to each other, so their enormous penthouses dot the landscape at Knepp like rows of beacons in every direction.

Storks, like the Tammworth pigs, Longhorn cattle and Britain’s largest land mammal – the Red Deer, resplendent in early May in their still velvet-wrapped antlers, are one of the species to have been actively reintroduced at Knepp, rather than simply being attracted by the advantageous conditions. But they seem to like the surroundings as much as the next bird and in 2020 a couple started breeding here – the first recorded Stork chicks born in these isles since 1416.

Also thriving at Knepp is England’s national tree – the Oak, co-existing happily with the prevalent bramble. Rather than the mighty Oak crowding out the bushes, they turn out to have a symbiotic relationship. That clever, colourful thrush, the Jay, plays a major part by hiding acorns amidst the brambles and the thorny bushes as a food store for the winter. Many get forgotten, allowing the acorns to to take root. During their most vulnerable first few years, the surrounding brambles protect the young sapling from ruminants until it has gained the height and girth to withstand them. Thus the old adage that “the thorn bush is the mother of the oak”.

Sadly we didn’t hear or see the turtle doves that apparently returned to Knepp just as we arrived. This beautiful golden-backed, purr-songed bird seemed to be vanishing from Britain under the pressure of pesticides and intensive farming that also has no space for scrub, wild flowers and weeds. Now, at a wilded Knepp, there are 20 breeding pairs each year.

We did, however, encounter some cold-blooded animals I had never seen before. When Matt, our guide, carefully lifted up one of the metre square metal lids dotted around the site, it revealed two quickly departing grass snakes and five sloworms, which required a little more sunlight before they too decided to slither off. At a another carefully stationed reptile-warming station a tiny shrew, momentarily confused by the removal of it’s cover, darted this way and that before scurrying away.

What will remain with me above all from three wonderful days at Knepp is just how filled with song our isles would be if more farmers followed Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell’s example. Every moment of our stay was enhanced by birdsong, including time spent taking a hot morning shower in the outdoor Bathenon facilities, which was akin to attending an opera whilst washing! Knepp is as close to nature heaven as you can get in Britain today and I can’t wait to go back.

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