Lessons From 20 Years Tackling the Biodiversity Crisis
LettsSafari and its founders have been developing smaller-scale rewilding and nature restoration systems for nearly 2 decades - we share some learnings.
As we approach the second anniversary of the launch of LettsSafari.com next month we reflect on the near 20 year journey that LettsSafari and its founders have embarked on tackling the climate crisis through smaller-scale rewilding and advanced nature restoration projects. We share a few things we have learned on the way.
“Rewilding and nature restoration is about more than wildlife conservation.”
We started our rewilding journey for our first plot of land in 2005. It began on just a few acres outside New York city. We did it because we wanted to do something about climate change. Something small and tangible, but something meaningful. We never imagined we would end up pioneering smaller-scale rewilding (which the experts thought was impossible) or discover a new method for gardening.
We just did it to try to recreate a miniature piece of our wild isle England right next to the urban jungle of New York. You see, we were missing the UK. Or at least parts of it.
As we embarked on this 20 year journey, learning a great deal along the way, we have come to realise that rewilding and nature restoration done the way we do it can be about more than certain wildlife conservation. It can be about rebuilding the soil, shaping water, cleaning the air, removing carbon, diversifying plants AND about wildlife conservation. But, mostly, we have learned that it is about restoring our soul.
“You don’t have to be an expert in plants or grasses or landscaping or wildlife. You have to be an expert in letting go!”
The very first thing that we did, on the first plot of land we learned our methods on, was to stop mowing the grass. We just mowed paths through it and places to sit. We did this, by accidental coincidence in May, and within a month the grasses were knee high. We were hooked.
When Sebastian Letts, our son, aged 5 at the time and already a budding naturalist, started playing with a family of grass snakes in a corner of these wild grasses we knew we were onto something. Sebastian, born in a multi-story tower block on the upper west side of New York, was the first thing that we wilded - in those few acres of wild grass just outside the city. A place where we experimented with all kinds of trees, shrubs, plants and structures.
We were not experts in plants or grasses or landscaping or wildlife. We just wanted to do something ‘wild’ for our kids. A place where they could play and be safe and free and natural - without rules or constraints. A place where the troubles of the world would be kept outside our fences for their early years.
Knowing just enough about gardening and landscaping and plants was enough. We were not indoctrinated by traditional English gardening methods (even though our parents and grandparents tried hard!). Indeed, our first inspiration for this stuff was the urban projects of Piet Oudulf. That and the media coverage about the early rewilding project in Yellowstone Park.
We did not know it then, but not being experts in any one plant or tree or animal was the perfect ingredient for becoming an accidental expert in rewilding. And at the time no one was an expert in smaller-scale rewilding. No one even knew what it was!
We gleaned what we could from wilderness scale rewilders and then figured out the smaller-scale stuff ourselves. And 20 years later after endless experiments we have become experts in smaller-scale rewilding and small nature conservation. And one of the biggest lessons we have learned is that you have to think about macro, no matter how micro the space is. That, and anything is possible.
“It’s all about ecosystem thinking.”
We quickly figured out that you need just 4 key macro habitats to start a rewilding project. Wild grasses, open scrub (think wild shrubs), trees and water(ways). In some of our projects we have assembled these in grids and strips and some in concentric circles. Each of them works well and any combination can be effective.
More important than the shape of your key habitat design is how these macro habitats co-exist and reinforce each other. That’s about the ecosystem. And the ecosystem comes to life when you sprinkle into its habitats the ingredients that come into them and out of them - including the weather, wildlife, insects, bugs, leaves, rotting matter, fungi, air, carbon, light, people, pets and more. They are the magic. You are the magician.
Get the ecosystem design and management right and the rest happens naturally. Well, almost.
“Rewilding is about creating a self reinforcing, sustainable ecosystem.”
We created a set of principles for each of our rewilding projects as they grew. We call it the three 3’s.
3 macro habitats (plus water):
trees (wood or forest).
3 key objectives:
increase the volume and diversity of wildlife
increase the variety of natural plant life.
3 key milestones:
insects come to the project attracted to the wild grasses and plants
birds come because of the insects and what they do
These guiding principles help us to design and manage highly effective rewilding safari gardens and parks. They are the compass by which we make most of our decisions.
Numerous insights have come from practising these key principles. Some are big insights like the fact that ancient trees remove more carbon than young trees. Not only that, but bigger, older trees store long term carbon whereas younger trees store short term carbon. We also know that ancient trees teach young trees how to store carbon and if those ancient trees are removed then the young trees store carbon less effectively. The pupil has lost her master.
But some of our hundreds of smaller learnings are equally important. Like a copse of trees can be as small as a triangle of 3 trees, or that planting poisonous plants like foxglove around a vegetable stops rabbits eating it, or that an 8 inch wide log left rotting in the ground is the ultimate bug factory. Equally we learned that a herbivore in a small field paces around and around in circles just as much as a tiger caged in a zoo. Set them free in one of our safari parks and they stop.
We also learned that plants can be trained not to need watering and putting the mower away can lead to a tenfold increase in bees thanks to nectar-rich plants such as white clover and daisy. Mostly we learnt that it is all about the soil. And our knowldge of what happens under our feet is painfully shallow.
“The small things can make as big an impact as the bigger ones. But start with the big ones!”
When considering the 4 key macro habitats required to make park scale rewilding work factor in the time for each to grow - and always start with what you have. A tree takes decades to grow so plant them first - or preferably start with a piece of land that already has well established trees.
Wild scrub takes years to grow and is rarely found in the western world as we have eradicated most of it. So get planting early in your project. Laying patches of dead hedge helps to naturally accelerate the process but more on that later.
Creating wild grasses takes as little time as dumping the mower - and weeds will start to come up naturally when you begin to let go, including the ragwort which is a vibrant hotspot for insects. Weeds are small things that pack a huge punch - so we have learned to understand them. After all everything that comes out of the ground has a purpose. The key is to understand the purpose and nurture it. Control should be focused on the most pervasive. In our LettsSafari parks select herbivores manage them for us.
“Rewilding can be controversial.”
So don’t ask. Just do it!
And the world is coming around…
“It's about humans as well as plants and animals.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about smaller-scale rewilding is that it is just about letting nature completely take its course. It is not. That’s what happens at a wilderness level and even these vast spaces require human intervention to keep them healthy and in balance. With smaller-scale rewilding, whether it be park-scale or garden-scale rewilding, humans are central to it. In LettsSafari’s park-scale rewilding we are helped by herbivores which we have painstakingly identified, bred and nurtured.
By watching these herbivores over the last decade we have understood how to mimic them in gardens. How they eat, what they tread, what they naturally prune and how they create space for diverse species. They have even taught us how to keep the right weeds in the right places and in the correct proportion.
In safari gardens humans act as the herbivores, with a bit of help from our rabbit friends. So we get to pull out the right weeds in the right places. We learn to dot ragwort around the garden so it can support caterpillars in more places. We learn to bunch bramble in patches to help foster the growth of new seedlings for future tree growth and wild shrubs.
Mostly we have learned that in smaller-scale rewilding we are the curators and, done right, plants and animals are our passion and our dutiful work-horses. Their millions of tiny feet, mouths and arms make everything possible. We just have to learn how to attract them, nurture them and harness their unbridled power.
“Man-made can mimic ‘natural’.”
Given the above we have tried hard to develop methods, approaches and tools that are man-made but mimic the longer natural processes. One key example has been the development of dead hedges and the consequent invention of the LettsSafari Biodome.
By examining the powerful effect of bramble and gorse nurturing the growth of new seedlings that turn into tomorrows trees and shrub, we have built sizeable strips of dead hedges to nurture wild living hedges. The hedgerow is really important because it is a tightly packed structure with a vast spread of plant and animal life.
Our dead hedges use fallen trees cut up and laid out to create intertwining layers of branches and brush that over 7-10 years become a living hedge bursting with scrub, plants and tree life. The dead hedge keeps the herbivores from eating back the seedling underneath and stopping it from becoming a healthy sapling. The dead hedge provides cover and protection so that seedlings can flourish.
As we developed our dead hedges we started to design an innovative new stand alone structure which we call a LettsSafari Biodome. It uses recycled wood built in the shape of a bell to create a bug factory, a natural hive and insect hotel with burrows underneath for rabbits and other mammals. These biodomes are being tested in a couple of LettsSafari parks and gardens and look to be making quite an impact.
We have learned over time that certain man-made structures can enhance and accelerate the development of vital micro-habitats.
“Everything is connected. And there are no rules.”
Rules are meant to be broken and that could not be more the case within our LettsSafari parks and gardens. Weeds are celebrated, herbivores are liberated, trees are grown under the cover of bramble and man-made biodomes are dotted around. We have even started a project to celebrate environmental open-air art called Devon Sculpture Park which a growing number of enthusiasts visit.
Some within the conservation community have tried to define smaller-scale rewilding as rewilding projects less than 250 acres. They are wrong. Smaller-scale rewilding projects should be up to 1,000 acres at least. We will prove this over the coming years.
Using large-scale rewilding techniques on spaces less than 1,000 acres can lead to large animal abuse and the erosion of nature.
“We all benefit from time in the wild.”
Mostly we have learned that everyone benefits from time in the wild. Across the LettsSafari parks and gardens we have developed over the last 2 decades we have seen thousands of people, animals, birds, plants and trees change for the better.
Indeed, we believe that the most important reason for rewilding is to significantly enhance our mental health. Who knew that it would include the health and wellbeing of pretty much every creature, fungi and plant in such a visible way. We are most thankful for having witnessed this extraordinary spectacle first hand over the last decade or two. We just hope that one day we can all get to experience it.
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