Part of our 2013 Autumn Seminar: The Grass Fed Meat Revolution
On the estate of Knepp Castle, in West Sussex, there is a farming experiment, ten years underway now, that has gone so far beyond free-range and organic farming, even beyond mob-grazing, that it has merged with the cutting edge of environmental restoration – re-wilding.
We all admire The New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor for their ancient farming patterns. The wild ponies and deer roaming alongside free-ranging sheep and cows together maintain the unique character of those rugged landscapes – landscapes that evoke in us something primeval, an ancient group-memory of the landscapes our hunter-gatherer-forebears first cast their eyes over 30,000 years ago.
It is remarkable, therefore, to discover a project in the middle of Sussex that aims to create a ‘new’ ancient farm landscape. The 3,500 acres of the Knepp Estate consists of many varied ecosystems – hills, water-meadows, woodlands and small fields, scrub, hedgerows, and glades. The livestock – ancient breeds of Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, deer and ponies, chosen for their environmental benefits – wander in freely associating family groups and remain outdoors all year round. As they forage, graze and root around these large herbivores transform the landscape in ways that regular management of either farms or nature reserves fails to achieve. The pigs create clearings in the woodlands. The hoofs of cattle and horses create fresh furrows in which annual seeds can germinate. The dung creates new areas of fertility cycling nutrients in ways that only large herbivores can .
This is farming without chemicals, ploughs or tractors. In fact when the Longhorns need rounding up they use horses, cowboy style, to flush them out of the scrubland. Horses were found to be far more adaptable than vehicles to the diverse terrain these animals inhabit, and the Carmargue horses used at Knepp are one of the most ancient breeds in Europe.
The Knepp Wildland Project includes restorations of water meadows, returning the Arun to its meandering path, monitoring the wildlife and biodiversity, and has involved the help of dozens of scientists and wildlife organisations. But this is not a purely conservation project. The ‘farm’ animals play a crucial role in this landscape restoration, as we have seen, but they are still ‘farmed’ – in as much as they are given sufficient care to maintain animal welfare and prevent diseases like bovine TB, and they are also selectively culled for their meat. This is necessary, because in the absence of any large carnivores herbivores like these can increase in numbers to the point where they begin to do more harm than good.
This farm uses no cereal crops nor animal feed. So how do the animals manage in winter? In this video you can watch the ponies and Longhorn cattle being fed ‘tree hay’ – branches cut earlier in the year, which even though dry and ‘dead’ are avidly consumed by the animals – a practice that is thought to date back to the earliest farming in Britain.
Because their diet is so close to what nature intended, the meat from these animals has all of the benefits of grass-fed meats, and is arguably more like the meat we would have evolved on over hundreds of thousands of years. So, it is seasonally leaner, higher in n3-fats (anti-inflammatory, brain building and heart protecting) and lower in pro-inflammatory n6-fats. It is sold as a premium product through Garlic Wood Farm, but does not attract a premium price tag. You can order a 5kg mixed beef box, delivered for £60 – that’s a supermarket-busting £12 per kilo for above-organic standards, and you’re supporting one of the most innovative projects in the country!
 New Scientist recently reported on a study suggesting that the disappearance of the mega-fauna with the spread of man across the globe cut off an ‘arterial system’ of nutrient flow with repercussions for entire eco-systems which is still in evidence today. Read the full article here