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What if you just leave it?

What if you just leave it?


Richard Godbehere


July 21, 2023

A comment we regularly see on our platforms is, "leave nature alone and it will flourish on its own". Many people believe this is the case, and many others ask. So is it true? Let's investigate.

Firstly let's just de-myth the “nature is doing fine, just leave it alone” scenario'. We have desperately tried to conserve nature over the last 50ish years, but equally we have come to see our consumerist, 24h culture as our entitlement, on balance resulting in ~ 68% loss in animal abundance over the same period of time. On that trajectory, you could suggest that we will have lost everything by 2048. Business as usual simply is not an option! We have to take a different approach if we are going to save nature from disappearing. Luckily, nature is amazingly resilient, and with some initial support, it can rebound. Naturally living a sustainable lifestyle within planetary boundaries is always a no-brainer to prevent further loss. However, our mission is to help redress the balance, by supporting nature, enabling it to thrive.

So is just leaving a patch of land to its own devices for a number of years the solution? Will nature flourish on its own? Well truthfully, it depends. Initially, as new plants and grasses pop up, the variety of species and structure (messiness if you like) increases, so nature gets richer, more wildlife will be attracted. But as time goes by, and nettles, brambles and eventually trees take over, the variety will decline, and so will wildlife. Unless, it's a large scale plot, with some herbivores, and possibly predators; then it certainly could thrive. However, in a garden, probably not; it's usually too small to contain the above creatures that can control the vegetation.

Let me break down why I say that and why controlling the vegetation matters…

  • For nature to get back on its feet, it needs to get to a point where it is once more self-sufficient. And for that to happen, it needs as much variety of plants and animals to be present as possible. But not just present, they need to be abundant. And for that to occur, there needs to be a great variety of habitats, and a great variety of structure and species within each habitat. Also, there needs to be plenty of it - so scale is important.
  • If you leave a patch of grassland fenced off for 30 years, it will cycle through flowers, grasses, taller weeds like nettles, thistles and brambles, each shading out/dominating the last. These inhospitable patches harbour tree saplings that eventually lead to the plot becoming a wood. Science calls this process plant succession.
  • This wood will be brilliant for some species, but not so for others. It will probably have a much more varied 3D structure than the grassland it started out as (so the wood will provide plenty of homes, e.g. for birds, small mammals and bats), but will be likely to contain less variety of plant and invertebrate species (so food options will be limited).
  • However, were you to get a mosaic of different habitats and vegetation stages from meadow to wood, then you get even more structural variation than a woodland alone, yet you also get more species than a grassland alone; hence there are food and homes for all).
  • Therefore, the more variety of plants you have, the more variety of insects come, hence a greater variety of feeding birds arrive, and bats, and small mammals and amphibians, and even reptiles.
  • So where do the herbivores come into this you ask. Well plant eating animals keep the plants down where they feed. Deer browse bushes and trees, stopping them spreading, cattle, sheep and horses tear and nibble the grasses and weeds, preventing tall weeds like nettles from dominating, whilst pigs turn over the soil creating patches for new flowering plants to flourish.
  • Therefore where herbivores roam, habitats stay in their early stages like grassland, where they don’t, woodland flourishes. So with low density of herbivores, you get a mixture of habitat stages, scattered randomly about - which is exactly what nature wants.
  • And when you think about it, that's what we had in the British Isles when nature was relatively untroubled by mankind; wild herbivores (deer, wild boar, wild ancestors to our cattle and horses) munching away, in places holding back the wild wood, and obviously providing a much more vibrant ecosystem than we have now.

So let’s go back to the start, can you “just leave nature to its own devices - it will be fine”? Well if you have a large estate with small numbers of a variety of free-roaming herbivores, then probably (although there are several other aspects to supporting nature that I’ve not covered here, that you may need to implement). Mostly though the answer is no, or not entirely. In smaller plots such as gardens, where you can’t support herbivores and don't have much scale, you will end up with the bramble patch, and down the line, a wood. 

So is there anything you can do to help nature in these cases? Of course there is, but we’ll explore that in the next blog.

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