Conservation at home and abroad: A panel discussion with Isabelle Tompkins, Dr Olly Fox and Lucy Cleland

Amidst the chorus of song birds, we joined guests at Thyme, Gloucestershire, to enjoy an enlightening panel discussion between Country & Town House’s Founding Editor, Lucy Cleland, ornithologist, Dr. Olly Fox, and Samara Karoo Reserve’s Head of Strategic Projects, Isabelle Tompkins, to learn about the interconnectedness between South Africa and Europe – the golden thread that sees migratory birds travel between South Africa’s expansive savannahs and Thyme’s very own fields and meadows.

As we learnt of the Willow Warblers goliath migration between South Africa’s Eastern Cape and Thyme’s resplendent gardens and meadows, the conversation explored themes of rewilding, regeneration and – most profoundly – inspirational stories of hope in the face of adversity. 

To set the scene, Samara Karoo Reserve is located in one of the world’s 36 Biodiversity Hot Spots, a truly mindbending landscape of dense Spekboom-covered valleys, winding rivers and distant purple peaks. This astonishing diversity of topography supports a great array of arid-adapted species, so a guided walk through the plains offers sightings of roaming elephant, giraffe, lion and even the elusive cheetah, Africa’s most endangered Big Cat.  This extraordinary landscape could not be more different to the swathes of grassland and mighty oak trees found in the Cotswolds, and in much of Britain.  Yet, they are inextricably linked, and we discovered more about the conservation of these polar ecosystems in this stimulating talk.  Read on for our key learnings!

Between 2 – 8 November 2024, we will join Isabelle and Sarah Tompkins at Samara to realise their very own tale of regeneration and success. With a small group of up to 14 guests, join us in exploring the Great Karoo’s mega diverse landscape alongside the Big 5.  Arrange a call with Lara, our Africa specialist, here

To learn more about Thyme’s calendar of upcoming events, all inspired by the beauty and power of nature, head here.


1. Humans have a habit of imposing their perception of beauty onto a landscape

As humans, we have a habit of imposing our own perception of beauty onto the landscapes around us. We might mow a lawn so it’s easy for us to walk or picnic on, or remove tree branches to have an uninterrupted view of the valleys and hillscapes surrounding us. But there are so many benefits to allowing nature to run its course and of appreciating the beauty in a healthy, biodiverse landscape over that of a ’neat’ or cultivated one.

Before elephants were introduced at Samara Karoo Reserve, there were concerns their presence would be detrimental to the habitat. There were fears that the iconic Shephard Tree, referenced with Samara’s logo, would be uprooted, damaged or destroyed by the browsing mega-fauna – the ecosystem engineers blamed for disrupting the serene landscape.

Instead, Samara witnessed how nature adapted to the presence of the elephants. Instead of being destroyed, trees survived and the branches grew in new positions, their foliage now accessible to grazing antelope and their shifted bark providing a home for different species, boosting biodiversity. 

The team at Samara came to value the beauty of allowing nature to thrive, the beauty of functional ecosystems and the flora and fauna they sustain. If, as humans, we continue to shift our perception of beauty away from the ’neat’ or ‘manicured’ and towards that which benefits nature, we may yet see our landscapes transform into something spectacular. 


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2. Birds follow green pathways on their migration between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe

Birds as small as the Willow Warbler, weighing just eight pounds, will migrate distances as large as 10,000 miles (and further) between landscapes like Samara Karoo Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape and the meadow fields of Thyme in England’s Gloucestershire. 

Feeding on green foliage as they go, their migration relies on the right habitat to nourish and sustain them on this epic journey. But the twin issues of development (habitat destruction) and drought, flooding and rising temperatures (climate change) are affecting their ability to endure this remarkable feat. 

Ornithologist, Dr. Olly Fox, noted from his own research how faithful birds are to their flight patterns and final destinations. Whilst some migratory instinct seems to be entirely genetic. For example, cuckoos whose young travel a whole month or so after the parents have departed with nothing to guide them but an innate compass.  It is thought others use land markers (and even astronomy!) to assist them on their repeat journeys. In many cases, birds like Willow Warblers will remain faithful to the exact same bush or shrub where they come to breed at their final destination. 

When their habitat is destroyed for building or markers are cut down to clear the way for farmland or roads, we inhibit these species’ chance of survival on this great migration. Where possible, leaving nature uninterrupted will hugely benefit our migratory visitors.


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3. Interconnectivity is key

The 67,000 acre Samara Karoo Reserve sits at the centre of three preservation areas – the Camdeboo, Mountain Zebra and Addo Elephant National Park – and they have a combined vision to form a wildlife corridor spanning three million acres. This landscape will be large enough to not only sustain healthy populations of wildlife by allowing for natural migrations with wildlife corridors, but to also enable approximately twelve ungulate species’ populations to increase (six of which are found nowhere else in South Africa). 

By bridging the gap between habitats which would have otherwise been small or isolated, greater wildlife movement is enabled between these areas. This movement helps to restore and preserve biodiversity whilst maintaining a healthy genetic diversity. 

At Thyme and in our surrounding countryside, steps as small as leaving hedgeways, removing fences and allowing grass to grow creates pathways for species to move freely and better distribute their genetic pool whilst not overusing a landscape’s resources. In Thyme’s very own water meadows, they have divided the grassland into three sections which are each mown once every three years to create pathways, allow for free movement of small mammals and to bolster resources for pollinators and birdlife.


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4. Trophic rewilding has a huge part to play in the regeneration of landscapes

Trophic rewilding can have one of the biggest impacts on the regeneration of a landscape. By reintroducing missing keystone species Samara Karoo Reserve has been able to better balance predator and prey, enabling different habitats to regenerate. 

Herbivores now avoid the plains they know to be frequented by lions, enabling those grasslands to recover from overgrazing. Smaller mammals are finding new homes in the wake of shrubbery disturbed by browsing mega-fauna and birds of prey, like the Cape Vulture, have returned to feed on the growing number of carcasses left by predators.

Viewed as scavengers and often given a bad reputation, vultures are actually symbiotic with a functioning ecosystem, vital for its health. By feeding on carrion, they help reduce the spread of disease before decay and decomposition allows toxins to spread, and their numbers are sustained in landscapes where there is ample opportunity for scavenging. 

As far afield as Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands where capybara now avoid the regions frequented by jaguars, allowing flora to regenerate, the reintroduction of keystone species is creating restorative benefits for the landscape. 

Closer to home, discussion continues around the reintroduction of apex predators to our own landscapes – wolves or lynx that would help control the deer populations responsible for so much ecological destruction in Scotland and further south.


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4. We can maximise our impact through collaboration 

At Samara Karoo Reserve, the Tompkins family knew they would not be able to restore the landscape and reintroduce missing species without the support of their local communities. Many surrounding farmers objected to the reintroduction of predators, fearing for their livestock and livelihoods. The team at Samara knew that, in order to go far, they had to invest the local community in the project and demonstrate its benefits for people as well as the planet. 

Through many years of relationship building and steady progress with the initiative, they demonstrated the economic rewards of their ecotourism venture and the beauty of returning the landscape to its former, biodiverse glory. Having begun regenerative farming over the pandemic themselves, they also proved to their farming neighbours how livestock could coexist alongside the big game they’d reintroduced onto the land. 

No longer viewed as ‘outsiders’, Samara continues to make considerable progress backed by their local communities and the staff who come from them. By creating employment opportunities and demonstrating that they too are walking the walk, Samara has encouraged an attitude shift that will help see the Great Karoo transformed to the flourishing biodiversity of its yesteryears.


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The Land of the Cheetah 

Our journey to South Africa includes one night in Cape Town luxury accommodation followed by a five-night stay at Samara Karoo’s 5* wilderness reserve.  As a result of Samara’s determined endeavours, their reserve is now the only Big 5 game reserve in the Karoo and the itinerary includes opportunities to track cheetah on foot, collar black rhinos, and learn under the tuition of one of South Africa’s six Master Trackers. Complemented by expert-led game drives and bush walks, bush dinners, Cape Mountain picnics and wild fly-camps, our journey will be hosted by key players in South African conservation, including leading ecologists, paleontologists and local historians who will all add further colour to the activities with their expertise and personal insights.  We have a wonderful group coming together for this memorable journey. With a few places remaining, please reach out to the team here or at [email protected] to receive the full itinerary and explore the opportunity in more detail. 

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Further Reading

Samara Karoo Reserve: A Day in the Life

The flourishing wildlife of Samara Karoo Reserve

Rewilding the Great Karoo with Sarah and Isabelle Tompkins

The Tracker Academy: Supporting Ecotourism, SA Economies and Conservation in the Great Karoo

Spekboom: The carbon sequestering plant in the Great Karoo

Dig a little deeper

Learn more about the journey here.

Click here for the full itinerary.

At a Glance: Fundación
Rewilding Argentina

1,850,000

…acres (or 750,000 hectares) of land protected.

264,000,000

…metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent sequestered.

370,658

…acres donated for new parkland creation.

OUR FOCUS - THE IBERÁ NATIONAL PARK:

This extraordinary wetland, the largest in Argentina, is home to 30% of the biodiversity in the country including endangered species such as the pampas and marsh deer, the maned wolf and grassland birds like the strange-tailed tyrant.

In 2005, what was to become one of the largest rewilding programs in the Americas was started, with the goal of restoring keystone species that had been extirpated from Iberá through hunting and habitat loss and were extinct in the region, the Province or, in some cases, the country. 

As the rewilding program developed, the cultural identity of Iberá began to recover alongside the ecosystems and natural processes, impacting a total population of 100,000 people who surround the park.

Today, Iberá stands as one of the world’s most successful ongoing conservation missions.