By Mathew Plumb

A white stork wheels away behind the bleached grasping of the branches of a dead willow, the silhouette of the bird as fine as an eyelash in the hot, blue sky. A sense of savannah or steppe emanates from the English countryside.

Knepp Wildland is an 11-acre block of Knepp Castle Estate in Horsham, West Sussex, a farm that is wild and feels right. There is a feeling of life, of virility.

The dead willow and the wheeling stork are emblems of change and hope. As sure as the stork lives, so does the willow; there are ecosystem services provided by dead wood, and this farm thrives on those systems.

The paradox of life in death, that has so deep a pull on our suppressed instinct, insight, and harmony with nature, now heralds a new era of farming.

Farming Connect has entrusted me to visit Knepp to report its astonishing story back to the farming community. Touching 20 years ago there was a dispersal on this farm that most of us would associate with the end of a family farm. But the dispersal was no ending.

A system on heavy clay that raised arable crops and sustained a dairy herd, relied on subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy and bound by the strictures of farming those subsidies prescribed, was not working for Knepp. The lack of financial success began to take too much of a toll on the emotional resilience of the family.

Observations on farm and strong evidence from the scientific community supported the need for action to mitigate against climate change and ecosystem collapse.

Human induced change in the natural world is as old as farming. How we farm, what we farm, why we farm are topics government recognises we must address as a society, but it is the farming community that has to action the change.

Landscape welfare, systems of farming that nurture the natural aptitude of the landscape to provide, and not be imposed on by human need, are the only systems that are sustainable. Farming that nourishes wildlife and connects the landscape will lessen the impact and breadth of climate change.

The dispersal at Knepp saw most of the tractors, all the ploughs and sprayers, the drills, all the machinery required to intensively farm, sold off. Fences were ripped up and the estate ring-fenced.

Intensive arable systems were replaced with a vegetation pulse of recovering woodland that supports a population boom of endangered species; purple emperor butterflies, turtle dove, nightingale, and now, white stork.

Minute organisms thrive; sweat bees bore tiny holes in the ground and live out a precarious, fascinating life that plumps the whole ecosystem. We all know it starts with the soil.

A ranch system of grazing herds increase ecosystem vitality, support eco-tourism, hope, and a farm system leads the way in sustainable practices.

Meat production is significant. A hundred head of Longhorn produces 65 saleable steers and heifers a year, giving an average deadweight of 380kg, or a total of 24,700kg.

A herd of 300 fallow deer, with a ratio of 40 per cent bucks produces in the region of 4,200kg of venison. The six Tamworth sows yield 40-50 pigs, which equates to 1,700kg of pork. Exmoor ponies that fulfil ecosystem services only, not meat for human consumption, produce 6,000kg of surplus pony from 20 mares.

The majority of Knepp's income is accrued from eco-tourism and education. The main campsite comfortably accommodates 60 campers, and there are just over a dozen glamping units in the form of shepherd’s huts and treehouses.

Safaris and seminars are well attended, and this year, the advent of nesting white storks saw 30,000 bird enthusiasts descend on the southern block in just six weeks, many of whom took advantage of the farm shop and pop-up cafe.

The Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in England will be replaced by Environmental Land Management (ELM) in 2028. Farms that do not make the changes required by ELM are going to struggle. The Single Farm Payment (SFP) in Wales will be curtailed next year, and farms are expected to transition to Sustainable Land Management (SLM).

Knepp accrues 14 per cent of its gross annual income from BPS, and is confident it can future-proof against the removal of BPS. Neighbouring farms rely on 40 per cent, and more, to make up their gross annual income.

Do we have enough support in Wales? I am confident the farming community in Wales is robust and ready for this new era of farming, but my experience as a woodland manager suggests thinking that is incomplete and not brave enough.

Farming Connect is asking questions and working hard for farmers. Test farms trialling sustainable methods are reporting positive outcomes, and a wealth of expertise and experience is at hand, but it will be farmers, and farms of all shapes and sizes that will drive the change that is coming.

Communities and consumers have a responsibility to support farms and the landscape through this change.

There is no landscape more suited to wilding than Wales. There is an irresistible, instinctive craving, a calling from the deeps of our primitive waking for a more open, rougher landscape, and we are a poorer, less wild people for the want of it.

About the author

Mathew Plumb owns a five-hectare woodland just outside Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. Planted in the early 1970s on red clay with gleys, Crowfield Plantation is composed of three coupes; 2ha of Douglas fir and sitka spruce which will supply the oversize and orchard markets after one more thin; 2ha of Japanese larch under clear fell; and 1ha of broadleaf regeneration under management for coppice charcoal and firewood, with cherry for timber.

Eco-tourism in the form of camping, woodland skills, supper clubs, and an arts space are all planned.

Minimal intervention agro-forestry systems producing pork and poultry are underway. Timber production remains paramount, but under continuous cover systems, with the emphasis on indigenous and imported wild sow stock.

A sawyer’s yard with carpentry workshop is partially installed, with all site structures milled and built on site from timber felled from the standing stock.