The new enterprise taking shape on a strip of derelict land beside a garden centre in Leek, Staffordshire, would be extraordinary at any time. But the large pond, greenhouses, cabins and homemade enclosures that will comprise this particular startup are positively miraculous given that it is driven by two 17-year-olds, both studying for their A-levels in the middle of a pandemic.
Childhood friends Harvey Tweats and Tom Whitehurst are on a mission – to rewild Britain by restoring reptile and amphibian species that are either virtually extinct or have been extinct for centuries in this country. Their company, Celtic Reptile & Amphibian, will soon open what the pair believe will be the country’s largest outdoor breeding facility for reptiles and amphibians. They hope it will be the first step in restoring lost species so that British ponds, lakes and wetlands once more resound to the croak of pool frogs and agile frogs as well as other once-common lizards and frogs. In the long term, Tweats and Whitehurst hope that the European pond turtle (which they source from Moldova) and the Aesculapian snake, already unofficially released in a couple of UK sites, may be embraced as new native species after being absent from the country for thousands of years.
This may appear wildly ambitious – especially for a pair of school pupils – but they are knowledgable, passionate environmentalists, and they have secured the financial backing of leading rewilders, such as Ben Goldsmith (brother of the environment minister Zac Goldsmith), who has already supported efforts to reintroduce the beaver, and Charlie Burrell, the owner of the rewilded Knepp estate in West Sussex.
It’s incredible, I enthuse, when Tweats, whose personable self-assurance makes him seem older than his years, and Whitehurst, who is quieter and in charge of the technical aspects of their operation, show me around their back-garden facilities via video. “It’s not incredible,” replies Tweats, laughing drily. “It’s really hard work.”
That work includes building their new facility which, despite Covid-related delays, they are aiming to open for the spring breeding season. Their current operation is in their parents’ back gardens. In the sunniest corner of Tweats’s small suburban garden is a greenhouse and a tidy patio surrounded by large, open-topped plastic storage boxes. Inside each box grow plants that match the native habitat of the animals they are breeding.
Tweats dips his hand into a small pond and gently picks out a moor frog. The dun-coloured amphibian crouches on his fingers, glistening in the sunlight. “This species is extinct in Britain but we want to bring it back,” he says. “It’s a male and it’s hibernating at the bottom of the pond, in a state of torpor.”
In another enclosure, Tweats carefully pulls out a European pond turtle, a gorgeous small reptile which lives across mainland Europe. The turtles colonised Britain after the ice age, but are thought to have disappeared from the country after a period of climatic cooling. “Who doesn’t love a turtle?” says Tweats, beaming. “The fact that they can sleep under ice and were once native to Britain … Brilliant.”
They may be experts in breeding European species, but the pair are also nurturing less exotic species such as common toads, which have declined by 68% in Britain since the 80s. “Conservationists focus so much on the endangered species that we don’t actually have a clue how to breed common stuff,” says Tweats. “You can learn so much from captive breeding – that feel for the animal. You can almost telepathically know how that animal is, whether it is sick or injured or in a breeding condition.”
Tweats’s interest in frogs and lizards began when he was small. “It’s almost innate, as if it’s in your DNA to love nature,” he says. “My grandad was, and still is, a massive nature nut. He’s taught me all about the countryside, ecology, everything.” Tweats collected frogspawn and watched tadpoles become frogs. He reared butterfly and moth caterpillars, but his first captive breeding “on quite a large scale” was stick insects. “The babies would get out and climb all up the walls,” he says. He was nine when he got a tortoise, which helped him understand reptiles’ needs. Later, he kept exotic snakes, such as pythons.
Every summer, Tweats and his family holidayed close to an area of lowland heathland in east Devon, the Pebblebed Heaths. One year he and his grandad attended an evening looking for nightjars – an elusive, nocturnal bird – and the wildlife warden, Ed Lagdon, impressed with Tweats’s enthusiasm, invited his family on a tour of the heath. Later, they kept in touch and, when a population of beavers was discovered on the nearby River Otter, Lagdon invited Tweats to do work experience on a trial to study the beavers’ impact in the valley.
By now a teenager, Tweats had been inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral. Working on the beaver project, “I had that lightbulb moment,” he says. “These beavers are creating incredible wetlands for amphibians and reptiles and yet they aren’t there because they went extinct so long ago.”
During his work experience, Tweats saw how beavers are ecosystem engineers. By building dams, they create new wetlands for amphibians and reptiles but also dragonflies and other insects, and the birds and mammals that eat them. He now believes that many of Britain’s “missing” amphibians went extinct in medieval times – because the beaver was hunted to extinction.
Tweats and Whitehead had begun breeding amphibians in earnest when they were revising together for their GCSEs. So was Whitehurst dragged along by Tweats’s enthusiasm? “You could say that,” says Whitehurst, laughing. He always enjoyed being outdoors in nature and admired Tweats’s passion. “When Harvey started keeping European green lizards, that made me go: ‘Hang on, this is something I want to be involved in.’ They were so stunning. Pythons are cool, but everybody’s seen them. When you realise these vibrant green lizards are a European species and you can actually keep them outdoors, that inspired me.
“We suddenly thought: ‘If Harvey got some green lizards and I got some eyed lizards, why don’t we start a Facebook page and see what connections we can make?’” So the friends merged back garden breeding operations and posted pictures online. “It started to gain momentum and we eventually transformed it into a company,” says Whitehurst.
One day, on the beaver trial, Tweats had a cup of tea with Derek Gow, an outspoken environmentalist known as Mr Beaver for masterminding beaver releases across Britain – and the talk turned to amphibians. “I said: ‘I breed them.’ And boom! There you go,” Tweats says. Suddenly, he realised that he could scale-up his hobby and contribute to big rewilding projects.
Gow now sits on their advisory board and introduced Tweats and Whitehurst to financial backers, including Goldsmith and Burrell. This allowed them to rent a half-acre patch of ground 10 minutes’ walk from their homes for their new breeding facility.
The friends are also, of course, in their final year of school, and are having to study from home. Like other students, their interrupted education has left them agonising over their final exams – which have now been cancelled – for months. “It’s just been an absolute nightmare,” admits Tweats. “We’ll be fine,” says Whitehurst. “We’ve got a lot of work to get on with so it kind of works in our favour.”
The support of influential adults is vital, but what do their peers think? Loving wildlife was once the badge of a teenage nerd. “I do think that’s changing,” says Tweats. “Environmentalism is becoming almost sexy. I hate to use the term fashionable, because this isn’t just a Gucci handbag, this is something we really need to take seriously as stewards of the Earth. But it has become a bit more of a trend. Friends you would’ve never thought would be environmentally friendly are posting things on social media.”
So fellow pupils never call them “newt boy” at school? “I am a people person and I’m very confident in social situations,” says Tweats. “I will make a joke about it and we’ll have a laugh, but overall it’s been incredibly positive. Maybe we’re lucky to be in a year group who are just so nice.”
In fact, friends – bribed with bacon butties and beer – have dug the pond for their breeding centre. But what do their girlfriends or partners make of their mission? Do they even have time for girlfriends or partners? “No, we don’t,” says Whitehurst. “I wouldn’t say it gets in the way, but as 17-year-olds we’d much rather crack on with this, at least for a year or so, before we start looking for something serious.”
There is still a lot of work to do – security fencing should arrive soon and then they will build enclosures with rat-proof mesh and a quarantine area. “Biosecurity is vital because of pathogens such as the chytrid fungus [a big cause of global amphibian declines],” says Tweats. Their dads help them with the build at weekends. Tweats’s father, a deputy head and former business teacher, also sits on their advisory board and guides business matters.
Tweats and Whitehurst hope to become self-sustaining with revenue from breeding animals for sale to hobbyists and also making money from social media and providing animals for filming and photography. They are already earning sponsorship from their YouTube channel and one of their European pond turtles has appeared on Countryfile on BBC One.
Ultimately, however, they want to breed thousands of amphibians and reptiles to support conservation programmes and bring back species including the pool frog, moor frog and the agile frog on Britain’s new beaver-created wetlands. And they are dismayed by the modest attempts made so far, such as returning the pool frog to a couple of pools in Norfolk.
“If that’s the imagination we’re going to have, considering we’re in the sixth mass extinction, we may as well admit defeat,” says Tweats. “If we want to get this species back – and not just as a tick-box species so we can say ‘we’ve got the pool frog back’ – it needs to be in every single pond in the UK. End of.”
Releasing 100 pool frogs is not rewilding, admits Tweats, “but restoring these amphibians could definitely fit into the jigsaw puzzle of rewilding”.
While wolves or lynx capture the imagination of rewilding purists, the significance of smaller creatures is underestimated, he explains, citing a US study that found the weight of juvenile amphibians on 10 hectares of healthy marshland to be equivalent to a black rhino – and 1,400kg of amphibians in a marsh is a lot of food.
“Although we think of amphibians as small, collectively they assemble into a massive superorganism that feeds so many species,” says Tweats. “People ask why do we want to bring back the pool frog or the moor frog or the agile frog? It’s simply food. All these different species inhabit slightly different niches in the ecosystem and open up the availability of food to many other species. If we want to bring back white storks at Knepp, then we’ve got to think about returning food to the landscape, as well as the inspiration and beauty that comes from these mini-dragons.”
Despite supply-chain delays meaning their big new greenhouse will arrive months late, Tweats says they have encountered so much “wonderful” support over the past year. “The interest in these species has just been insane. They used to be completely vilified – toads were once seen as the spawn of witches. It’s come full circle and these animals are a symbol of hope and restoration.”
I tell Tweats and Whitehurst they will soon be famous and constantly asked to name their favourite reptile or amphibian. They look pained at the prospect of choosing one. Tweats’s favourites include the sand lizard and European pond turtle; Whitehurst loves eyed lizards (“they reach 90cm long, the largest mainland lizard in Europe”), common lizards (“the fact they give live birth, incubating the eggs inside them, is something that’s always fascinated me”) and tree frogs.
“What about Gallotia goliath?” says Tweats. “It was a giant species of lizard that lived on the Canary Islands and it went extinct when the Conquistadors arrived. There are still remains, so there’s the potential to do a Jurassic Park-style resurrection on them.”
“We’ll be at the forefront of that,” says Whitehurst with a gleam in his eye.
“When we’re famous and we’ve got enough cash,” adds Tweats, laughing.
Will the next Jurassic Park be found in Leek? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Hop to it! Harvey and Tom explain how you can help wild reptiles and amphibians in your garden
1. Just add water and nature will come back. A pond – even a tiny one, from a washing-up bowl – will soon attract frogs and newts.
2. Create hibernaculums (where animals can spend the winter) by leaving piles of logs or twigs underneath hedges or in garden corners.
3. Leave your lawn to grow wild to boost insects and provide food for amphibians. Frogs live in long grass.
4. Modern wooden fencing prevents frogs and toads from roaming between gardens. Cut small holes at the fence base, like the increasingly popular “hedgehog holes”.
5. Don’t use pesticides or slug pellets or other chemicals that destroy insect life.
6. Collar bells for cats can help frogs evade them. Or consider not having a cat.