First-time Chelsea designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt used native plants to showcase a re-wilded landscape after the reintroduction of beavers in south west England
Interview by Gareth Richards, RHS Group Features Editor
At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022, designers Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt reimagined ancient countryside with their ‘A Rewilding Britain Landscape’ garden. Intriguingly, the design was based on the landscaping abilities of a native British species undergoing a resurgence after a 400-year absence: the beaver.
A Rewilding Britain Landscape featured a meandering brook through hawthorn, hazel and field maples leading to a pool created by the beavers. This sat above a meadow of native wildflowers, alders and crack willow.
Why were you keen to show the positive impact beavers can have on nature?
Adam: We work on a number of rewilding sites, and the outcome of ‘ecosystem engineers’ such as beavers is incredible. They’re really effective at creating new habitats for other types of wildlife and plants. Water voles, amphibians, salmon, trout, insects and birds all benefit from beavers. What we wanted to show in our garden is the effects that ecosystem engineering done by animals can have on nature.
Lulu: These new habitats really excite Adam and me. For example, their dams create areas of silty gravel which make great spawning sites for fish. Almost every deciduous native tree in the UK has a coppicing habit [able to regrow when felled almost to the ground] – partly because they co-evolved with beavers. So beavers belong here – they have a right to be here just as much as we do.
Why are beavers and rewildling such hot topics at the moment?
Adam: There’s a lot of rewilding going on, and there’s a lot of support for it. We’re keen for people to re-learn to live alongside these animals again. Rewilding is one of the few strong responses we can make to climate change. It increases habitat range and thereby allows species to move and adapt as they need to.
Lulu: It delivers back a sense of hope: we’ve become armchair witnesses to climate change and losing animals in our lives. My kids won’t watch wildlife programmes any more – they’re too depressed. We believe in ecological restoration and are excited to be part of restoring a lost species. We’ve had a great response to the garden already – people are really surprised and excited.
Is this a big step for a Chelsea garden?
Lulu: For us it’s about letting go of the constructs of what a garden should be. As part of that deconstruction we’re really excited to bring in a natural landscape rather than a garden. Jihae Hwang and James Basson have brought similar aesthetics to Chelsea before [with gardens evoking the Korean Demilitarized Zone and arid Provencal landscapes respectively], so it’s not an entirely new thing. The challenge was to create the feeling of an intact landscape.
Adam: Its time has come. At the show this year there are many environmentally themed gardens. It's particularly important that we’re representing Rewilding Britain here – the major organisation in the sector. Traditionally gardens have often been havens for nature, take the incredible diversity at Great Dixter for example, but we are now finding that more and more of our clients are asking us to design in a way that more proactively encourages nature into their gardens.
Would you welcome beavers into your garden at home?
Adam: I live on the edge of the Somerset Levels, and we’ve had huge flooding problems – one of the main reasons for that is water coming down off the hills too quickly. Beaver dams help slow down floodwater so I’d welcome them in my local area. Also I’d love the children that I know to have the chance to see a proper wild creature in its habitat.
Lulu: It’s so important to slow water down, giving nature a place to catch up with itself – we see rewilding as giving nature back its breath. It gives us back our breath too – by creating these stiller places there are profound benefits for not just the environment but also human health and wellbeing. I have a copse by the River Brue and I’d be fascinated to see them back here. There are some mature trees I’d want to save, but you can control beavers by painting tree trunks with sandy paint or wrapping the bottom metre of the trunks with chicken wire. There are also beaver deceivers! Using outflows that they can’t hear will discourage them from building dams where you don’t want them to.
“We see rewilding as giving nature back its breath”
What does rewilding mean, especially in a garden context?
Adam: It’s a continuation of the evolution of gardening practices. Whereas our grandparents cut everything back in September, new wave designers like Piet Oudolf taught us to appreciate the structural beauty of dead and dying plants, and the wildlife value they bring. Rewilding is the logical next step. It’s a multidimensional approach – rewilded gardens might look a little scruffy but close your eyes and listen. They’re not just landscapes, they’re soundscapes too. The hum of insects on a summer day, the loud dawn chorus… it reminds us of the age-old love affair we have always had with nature.