Last October, the UK government published its policy for a nature recovery network, as part of the 25-year environment plan, with a commitment to create a network of places across England that are richer in wildlife, more resilient to climate change and which furnish broader benefits including carbon capture.

One such site actually mentioned in the government’s 25-year environment plan is Knepp estate in West Sussex, home to a pioneering re-wilding project and haven for increasingly rare species like turtle dove and nightingale, both on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Endangered Species.

Forestry Journal: Commonly occurring blackthorn thickets are now favoured nesting sites for two rare, red-list birds, the nightingale and turtle dove.Commonly occurring blackthorn thickets are now favoured nesting sites for two rare, red-list birds, the nightingale and turtle dove.

The government’s policy, ‘A Green Future: our 25-year plan to Improve the Environment’, set out what it will be doing to improve the environment, within a generation. However, so much for the ‘25-year long view’ because the ‘vitality’ of this prime wildlife estate for wildlife in West Sussex could be snuffed out in less than five years if plans to build 3,500 homes next door go ahead.

The development plan has caused widespread dismay and concern, culminating in a letter of protest to The Times by over 30 high-profile wildlife and environmental organisations. “The development would stop nature in its tracks, preventing the Knepp estate from connecting with St Leonard’s Forest and Ashdown Forest, reducing it to a wildlife island in a sea of housing allocated by central government” said the letter, signed by National Trust, Woodland Trust, RSPB and World Wildlife Fund among others.” And clearly in complete contrast to UK government’s aim that sites such as Knepp become vital ‘wildlife corridors’ to connect with other nature-rich sites.

Forestry Journal: Blackthorn was stunning in the south in spring 2021, the sunny but cold conditions allowing the white blossom to persist at its best from late March to beyond the middle of April.Blackthorn was stunning in the south in spring 2021, the sunny but cold conditions allowing the white blossom to persist at its best from late March to beyond the middle of April.

Why central government should have a hand in such misguided development is clearly at odds with and undermines the very foundations of its own 25-year environment plan. It’s all very well to ‘bang on about biodiversity’, apparently for show and without conviction, but at the end of the day it is just noise which we could do without. Better to say nothing and do nothing, so at least we know where we stand. Proposal to build 3,500 houses at Buck Barn on land next to the Knepp estate is part of Horsham District Council’s local development plan.

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Sir Charles Burrell, who inherited Knepp, and his wife Isabella Tree, author of a best-selling book entitled ‘Wilding’, have said the housing development would ruin their plans to create a ‘wildlife corridor’ linking nature sites and allowing birds, bats and mammals to move freely across the landscape. The Knepp re-wilding project is widely regarded as an outstanding example of habitat restoration and hosting some of the country’s most threatened species. Knepp estate is under consideration as a National Nature Reserve and as such a pivotal place in one of the new nature recovery areas envisaged by Natural England.

Forestry Journal: Less coppicing of woodland like hazel under oak and ash standards shown here is one reason for a decline in the nightingale, previously a classic woodland songbird. Less coppicing of woodland like hazel under oak and ash standards shown here is one reason for a decline in the nightingale, previously a classic woodland songbird.

Development proposals like this one, which are a slap in the face for all those straining every sinew to save the country’s wildlife and countryside heritage, are now happening with frightening regularity. This is clearly one of them and clearly qualifies for the ‘You Couldn’t Make it up if you Tried’ award.

Author’s note

Knepp estate is home to the nightingale and turtle dove, two summer migrant birds high on the IUCN’s Red-List of Endangered Species.

Nightingale has suffered a dramatic decline with a 90 per cent fall in the UK population over the last half century. Reasons are varied and complex but factors having solutions within our grasp include deer damage to woodland and less coppicing. On the plus side nightingales are adapting by moving away from being a classic woodland species to nesting in over-grown hedgerows and thickets made up of mixed shrub species with a preponderance of blackthorn. Such sites are now favoured at Knepp, according to the estate’s website, with the ‘cathedral-like’ insides of the thorny thickets providing adult birds and fledgling chicks safe havens in which to forage for insects in the leaf litter.

Turtle dove is ecologically unique as Europe’s only long-distance migratory dove, and at real risk of becoming extinct in Britain. Some factors are out our control but loss of suitable breeding habitat here in the British Isles is one factor that is. UK population of turtle dove has declined over 90 per cent since the 1970’s. Contemporary rarity of turtle doves was epitomised in 2019 when a lone male dove nicknamed ‘Terry the Turtle Dove’ arrived in spring 2019 at the North Yorkshire village of Lockton from its over-wintering grounds in Sub Saharan Africa, but sadly was unable to find a mate.

Perhaps more by luck than judgement we now have some basis on which to build a more solid future for these two iconic British birds. Blackthorn thickets which are commonplace throughout most of the country have become favoured nesting sites for both nightingale and turtle dove. Blackthorn has been particularly stunning in the south this year, the sunny and cold but not too frosty conditions allowing the white blossom to persist at its best over several weeks.

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