In a lane between perfectly ordinary stretches of countryside we found a sliver of forgotten ground. A footpath bounded on either side by overgrowth: burdock, shoulder high nettles, hogweed and a few hemlock plants growing half as high again as I am. The rank green teemed with wonderful common insects, among them an orange dotted moth that feeds on hogweed seeds, a female stag beetle and the wondrous Heterotoma planicornis, a plant bug with a blue sheen, bright green legs and absurdly chunky ever-waving antennae.
As enchanting as the hedgerow was, we were in search of a nature reserve. Hurley Chalk Pit, to be precise, one of BBOWTs* smallest. It’s the merest fragment of chalk grassland, a suggestion of what could spread across this landscape. Whilst most of the surrounding land is either intensive pasture, product of much management, or beech woodland, product of very little current management at all, the careful intervention of a few dedicated people ensures this place persists as a wonderful paradox: wholly the product of human intervention – first chalk extraction, now conservation work – but possessing a beauty that is wholly, improbably wild.
It feels as though we need both kinds of wild: the common and exuberant that bursts forth at every opportunity, as in the overgrown lanes and untended field corners, and the rare and delicate that is all too easy to snuff out. Much of the current debate in conservation is about seeking to find and maintain the ‘correct’ balance of these visions of nature. Is there a third way? Can we have dynamic, ever-changing places, largely left to their own devices that boast an abundance of common species and give refuge to species that are declining or extinguished elsewhere? Well, I’ve just got back Knepp: perhaps I found some answers!