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WILDERNESS REGENERATION AND HARVESTING
[this is adapted from an article which appeared in Permacuklture Magazine in two parts during 2002
Images of Argel.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to watch the process of wilderness regeneration take place on Argel, a 2/3 acre patch of rough grazing at Tir Penrhos Isaf. I fenced out domestic livestock in February 1986 and have found the return of wilderness to be a hugely inspiring, encouraging and empowering experience to observe. It has proved particularly valuable as I have been able to generalise many of the environmental patterns unfolding in this regenerating eco-system and apply them to both personal and community regeneration as well. Regeneration can thus give us powerful insights leading to useful models for our work as Permaculture Designers.
If we are to truly work with nature, rather than against it, it seems obvious that as designers we should have some idea of what nature is trying to do in the first place. Observation of regenerating systems can provide us with direct experience of natural processes and the opportunity to become consciously involved in them.
Most of Britain was forested in the past, (estimates range up to 80-97% forest) and that's what most land is still trying to turn into today. The main reason it doesn't turn back into forest is due to limiting factors such as agriculture and grazing animals. Initiating regeneration is simple and generally requires only the removal of those limiting factors.
Land is dynamic
All land is dynamic rather than static; we could say that it is alive and already contains patterns for how it will develop, given the opportunity. These patterns will influence regeneration and they include factors such as soil type, aspect, slope, drainage, seed resources etc. etc. To trigger regeneration we generally do not need to know much about this as the land will tend to sort itself out anyway, making good any deficiencies in terms of nutrients, increasing water retention, building shelter.
However, as with any good site design, it is vital to find out what is there to start with. It is important to point out that regeneration is simply not appropriate on some sites. Species rich old meadows, for example, with their sun-loving plants, are hugely valuable in their own right as pools of genetic diversity; allowing them to turn back into forest will shade out that diversity and much of it will be lost. Similarly, drained upland bogs which represent vast potential water storages capable of greatly reducing the risk of flash flooding, will require a different approach; generally blocking up drainage ditches and restricting tree cover by the use of animals to allow sphagnum to get going again. If you are at all unsure it is worth consulting an ecologist or botanist and in our area, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) are generally happy to come and have a look. If we do decide to proceed with regeneration, these careful observations will give us clues as to the limiting factors operating on the site and more importantly, what to do first.
Each site will generate its own patterns of succession, depending on its particular limiting factors. This will not be just a list of species and the order in which they appear or dominate but also topological changes, the shape and contours of vegetation, which will effect bird life (and hence seed distribution) and shelter.
The removal of domestic stock will allow grasses to grow to flower and seed which is unusual in strict grazing regimes (though not in meadows) as in modern livestock farming we generally want only leaf. As the plants divert energy to seed production they weaken and provide opportunities for non-grasses (the more interesting stuff) to increase. Clumping may occur as these plants find niche space around individual saplings or shrubs, especially gorse. Over time the clumps expand and join together forming denser stands and thickets. The spaces left between them will gradually appear to be clearings rather than field. In turn, tree crowns open out above bracken or gorse and begin to shade them out and new spaces and forest floor appear under the enlarging crowns. After fifteen years there are places on Argel where I can walk upright under the closed tree canopy, mindful of the violets and bluebells at my feet.
These patterns of succession in regenerating natural systems can provide us with useful strategies in our general design work. This has particular use in broadscale systems, rolling permaculture or where funds or time are limited. For example, on our own site we worked outwards from around the dwelling area and gradually pushed garden, orchard and other trees out into the fields. We began in year one with spot mulched pioneer trees, local natives like birch and willow and related plants such as gorse, for soil conditioning and shelter. In subsequent years we re-mulched, joining some spot mulches up to form sheet mulch into which we planted soft fruit cuttings or even a crop of potatoes. As the plants grow they generate clumps and begin to shade out grasses and mulch themselves. With time we added in more useful species such as fruit and nut trees. The gorse dies back as it is over topped, willow is heavily coppiced to produce material to move further out into the fields, volunteers join in and it all gets bigger.
The essentials for sustainability; water, soil and biodiversity
These three provide us with the essential basic criteria for measuring the sustainability of an environment or site; ie. is the site storing more water each year or less? Is soil building taking place or is there an annual loss? Is the bio-diversity of the site increasing or decreasing? These questions can and should be applied to our environmental design in general and not just regeneration. They are interconnected but current attention tends to focus on bio-diversity alone so its useful to point out that without water or soil, bio-diversity alone will not generate a sustainable system.
The primary and greatest storage for water in Britain is in the soil; this is a far greater reservoir than any we could construct. In grazed pastures, even with adjacent trees, little or no leaf trapping takes place; that is, the leaf litter simply blows away. I watched this in the first year at Argel during autumn gales; some of our mature oaks and ash shed huge quantities of leaves, all of which just blew away over the sheep grazed lawn. But even after just one year of regeneration, grasses were tall enough to slow the wind close to the ground and allow some leaves to remain and thus rot down to feed to soil.
Plants which improve the soil will also appear (eg. gorse) and there is a general increase in bio-mass, part of which is deposited on the surface annually and part of that is in turn incorporated into the soils. Coupled with increased root penetration as forbs, shrubs and trees take over from grasses we find a general increase in the water storage capacity of the soils; dry areas hold more water. The increase in plant material above ground slows and eventually stops run off and increases infiltration of the soils and through-flow. The through -flow recharges the water table, springs and rivers. Regeneration of upland areas would be one of the simplest ways to reduce the risk of both catastrophic flooding and drought.
It should be clear from the above that soils and water are not really separable; as well as the increased water capacity, the regeneration process inevitably improves soils. Given sufficient seed sources regeneration will tend to make good deficiencies in soils as a direct consequence of natural selection. So, for example, in acid soils, plants which do well will be those that are extremely good at grabbing any available calcium, possibly from deeper levels. As these plants die the calcium will be made available on the surface to other plants. Gorse is a good example here; it gains calcium from the subsoil and returns the element to the top soil when it dies, thus making the subsoil more acidic and the topsoil less acidic.
Gorse is also a nitrogen fixer, (as are the trefoils), bracken accumulates potash, (potassium) and the increased ground cover and shrub layer on regenerating sites provides good bird habitat; birds accumulate phosphates in their droppings. Thus the three primary plant nutrients are provided for and recycled through the regenerating system. This should give us confidence to accept that the regenerating natural system will similarly acquire and recycle any other essential nutrients or trace elements without us having to worry to much. I personally believe that soil deficiencies are generally not immediately significant in terms of limits to regeneration; ie. there are usually more obvious limitations that we can deal with first.
Bio-diversity is inherently connected with water storage and soil building. On the regenerating site, diversity tends to increase more and more rapidly and then the increase gradually slows down but never really stops. Again, in most situations this will look after itself. If a decision is taken to introduce seed or seed plants, we would do well to consider the importance of maintaining local bio-diversity. I have good examples on Argel of local self sown birch trees and bought imported, container grown birch trees, (from Holland via Shrewsbury); the locally adapted trees thrive even in wet areas whereas two out of three of the imported plants have died.
It's important to remember that if a regenerating site is moving from pasture towards complete tree cover then many of the original sun-loving pasture or meadow species will be shaded out and lost. If this occurs in species rich meadows we will probably end up with a loss of diversity as regeneration proceeds, hence my earlier warnings to decide carefully whether regeneration is actually appropriate or not. In order to preserve pasture species within regenerating systems, we can maintain clearings and paths by the controlled use of animals; we have used combinations of tethers, running tethers and electric tape to manage goats and ponies. This means that regeneration will add in more species without loosing the ones that are already there. As the system matures and becomes more robust, animals can be given limited access to keep some areas open, always ensuring that you observe carefully the effects of these interventions and make adjustments when necessary.
Limiting factors that effect the regeneration
My observation of regeneration led me to consider the limiting factors which stop, slow down or otherwise effect the process of regeneration. At present I see this as something like an onion with layers of limitations which have to be peeled away in an appropriate order. Each time a layer of limitation is removed, another limit is revealed. This approach can obviously also be applied to designed systems. The process involves identifying the primary limit to yield, removing it, then identifying the subsequent limit and removing it etc. etc.
It is important to remove limits in an appropriate order. For example, letting in more light or adding seed before removing grazing animals will not achieve much. The order of limits will vary from site to site but the following list can function as a rough guide. Obviously there are many more limits than the ones I have covered here.
a) Grazing animals and agriculture
The primary limit to regeneration in Britain. The forest germinates and begins to grow every year but gets eaten or ploughed in. Solution: remove animals or stop ploughing.
b) Lack of available seed sources
For regeneration to move fairly quickly on large fields with no mature seed trees, additional seed can be distributed. Keeping in mind local bio-diversity the collection of a proportion of seed locally would be useful, ideally from good local examples. You may find that some organisations (such as CCW) will have records of particularly good examples of local native trees. However, we could also bear in mind the longer term management of the regeneration site and consider the inclusion of useful exotics in our additional seed. These can form an additional harvest as the regeneration proceeds.
c) Tenacious species
These might be native or exotic plants, such as rhododendron, bracken, western hemlock, rye grasses; the tendency may be towards monoculture. This is an ongoing challenge but it is not just a challenge to get rid of the unwanted species. Much energy can be spent trying to eradicate plants and many people will have their pet hates (weeds). However, even non-native plants are growing there for a reason and meditating on why a particular plant is there can be fruitful. The challenge may be not so much how to exclude certain species but rather how to generate products and markets for these materials so that the management of regenerating systems generates additional yield; thus the problem becomes a solution. A good example here is bracken which can be incorporated into large or small composting schemes.
A further challenge may be to develop our thinking so as to be able to happily allow exotics in regeneration projects, as well as our more humanly designed systems. The changing climate will inevitably produce changed ecologies and it will be useful for us to have some ideas as to what these recombinant ecologies will be like and how we can interact with them. The alternative, more purist approach of allowing only native regeneration may require radical treatments to eradicate exotics, such as the use of chemicals or even the removal of topsoil. We would be wise here to question whether this is actually working with nature.
On some sites tenacious plants such as rye grasses can form an apparently unbreakable barrier to tree seed. Given time I am pretty sure that they would give way to forest but if we are impatient we could consider laying down light barriers (carpet, black plastic etc.) for a season and then distributing seed on the bare areas which results. It is also possible to use heavy animals (horses, cattle) to break up the grasses through poaching and thus allow space for other seed to get started.
Tenacious species may mean animals as well as plants. At Argel, fallow deer initially worried me as I did not have the resources to fence them out. However, as it happened I think they really helped, adding areas of concentrated nutrients, creating and maintaining paths and clearings and hence niche space for pasture species. In other situations, other wild or feral animals may severely restrict regeneration and then some careful thinking is required. For me, this points to the challenges we would face as a vegetarian nation. Too many rabbits really means not enough meat eaters.
d) Lack of light
Unthinned or undermanaged woodlands, particularly monocultural conifer plantations will shade out pretty much everything. Thin the trees and let more light in. Some seed can survive for years; gorse has been recorded germinating after eighty years and in the plantations around me has survived the first crop of conifers (planted 1927), germinating in the wheel ruts left by timber harvesting machinery.
e) Too dry
Add in simple swales (contour or very close to contour shallow ditches designed to trap rainwater and allow it to soak into the soil), contour plough or rip, add surplus organic materials. Once the regenerating system gets going it will hold more and more water in its soils and biomass.
f) Too wet
Regenerate a marsh or pond. Marshes, particularly upland bogs, represent one of the most threatened and eroded ecosystems in Britain. They play hugely important roles in water management, operating as buffers (temporary water storage) during flash floods or wet seasons. I blocked up ditches and constructed causeways from surplus bio mass to increase their capacity.
Depending on what we do, we can steer the regenerating system towards a desired goal. We can high prune trees and add in more timber species to move towards managed forest. We could capitalise on the nutritional content of certain plants, like gorse, and steer towards animal forage systems. We could favour existing soft fruits (often key colonisers) and add in others plus hard fruits to create orchards or we could include a simple dwelling to allow a person to generate an intensive food garden. Or we could leave it to itself and move towards wilderness, visiting now and then to observe the passion. There are parts of Argel that I have not been to for five years now; what surprises and lessons await me?
Steering requires cycles of thoughtful, prolonged observation followed by small scale experiment. A simple example is that of pulling bracken and using it as a mulch around trees or gorse or soft fruits. Depending on which we mulch we are steering towards forestry, animal fodder or human food. It's important to remember here that what we steer towards should be related to the ease of giving attention, so there’s little point in trying to steer the system towards large diameter timber production, for example, if there is no access to get that timber out.
The regeneration process can be halted at any stage through management if this is the desired long term design. The obvious one is that animals, especially sheep, can maintain the process at the pasture stage. Another example is that goats managed with electric tape fencing or tethers can create scrub fodder systems. Similarly, horses, who like a bit of browse but generally prefer grasses, can favour more interesting pasture species and even tree regeneration, if their numbers are low or similar strategies to goats are employed; we have oak and hazel self seeded into our pasture, even though they are regularly grazed.
Maintenance as harvesting
Observation of the evolving system is vital and this provides us with our first and most valuable yield, information. In order to accumulate information, access is required and this is probably our first intervention, deciding paths. This can actively encourage further diversity and regeneration. A path generates a strip of compressed soils with two edges; that is, it creates differences or different niches which nature will fill with different species. If we are thoughtful, all our interventions can be positive, resulting in useful yield of some sort.
Interventions regarding tenacious species should be assessed carefully. Often what appears as a problem will turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. For example, some trees, particularly Rowan but also oak and birch, can outcompete bracken in some situations so it may be unnecessary to harvest bracken under them as the trees will shade it out in time anyway.
Where an intervention is made it is crucial to think of a use for the material prior to making the intervention. Bracken for example can be used as mulch on the regeneration site to favour sapling trees or it can be removed and used as mulch elsewhere or composted. Again, this becomes a general principle in our design work, to turn maintenance operations into harvesting ones. If we fail to do this or burden ourselves with considerable maintenance operations, we may find we do not have the time to do anything else.
Every plant that appears during the regeneration is playing some part in the process, whether providing shelter, protection, grabbing a trace element and making it available to other species; this is true whether the plant is a native or an exotic. Every insect, bird and mammal is gardening part of the system in some way. The meadow ants build new heaps once the sheep have gone and provide a minute area of tilled soil where very specific annuals have the chance to grow. Fallow deer thrash growing trees in the rutting season and in effect create coppice systems that they can still reach to browse. Every interaction we make with the system is gardening; walking generates paths, moving a bramble runner to one side, pulling bracken from around a sapling. It may take some thought for us to recognise how gardening is taking place in any given instance but this is time well spent.
The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited
The regenerating system demonstrates increasing yield. In most situations, increasing biomass is the most obvious increase initially, (it all gets bigger). The increase in plant surfaces increases the area available for interactions with the atmosphere and climate. Increasing amounts of energy are trapped and recycled through the system or stored in soils as fertility. If we so choose, we can always add another species or make small interventions to increase cycling of nutrients or trapping of energy. Or we can consider the myriad observations we have made of the process, the many surprises we have had along the way and how we can use them in our designs.
During the year 1990-1991, the fifth year of regeneration, I made an attempt to record the various yields from Argel. Where I could not be entirely accurate with the amount of produce, I made conservative estimates. Where no price was available for a product, I used as close an equivalent as possible. Weights and measures given are in imperial and prices are in pounds sterling. I include them here in order to demonstrate what we might hope for during the early stages of regeneration.
|Argel: yield for 1990-1991 (fifth year of regeneration)
|Gorse: fodder, 3/4 ton (hay=£100 per ton)
|Gorse: firewood 1/2 ton @ £30 per ton
|Bracken: bedding 1/2 ton (straw=£50 per ton)
|Bracken: mulch 1/4 ton (straw=£50 per ton)
|Blackberries 20lb. @ £1 per lb.
|Raspberries 10 lb. @ £1.50 per lb.
|Tree seedlings/saplings 50 @ 50p-£1.50 each
|other plants including seeds, herbs etc 100 @ 50p each
|timber, including Christmas trees
|meat: 1/2 deer, road kill
|meat: rabbit, 8 @ £1.50 each
total value of harvested produce
|guided tours (as part of general tour)1 hour per tour at £10 per hour. Average 25 tours per year
|increased water storage
|increased soil and fertility
|increase in diversity
Argel is approximately a 2/3 acre site and under its previous management system of subsidised sheep, might have been expected to produce two or three animals per year at roughly £30 per animal (this is about what the subsidy payment is per year in upland areas). It should be obvious from the above that managing wilderness regeneration systems can be far more productive as well as more environmentally beneficial. Try multiplying these figures to generate yields for 500 acre farms. Interesting, isn't it?
As the regeneration proceeded, so too did the potential yield and product value. Such a complex system becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate, certainly in monetary terms. Interestingly, good work has now been undertaken by designers working in the opposite direction, that is, starting from complex forest systems; Ben Law and David Blair have both produced excellent analyses of the product webs of forest systems which can easily be applied to adolescent and maturing regenerating systems.
The crucial factor here is that in order to manage and harvest such massively productive systems we would need far more people living in the landscape. One thing to remember is that with all the increased bio mass and tree cover we probably wouldn’t even know they were there.
The broader horizons of a pioneer generalist
In all the above, that is, the observation of a regenerating eco-system, we are dealing with a holistic system which includes both matter and consciousness (us as observers/interactors). In the same way that environments and soils have become eroded and degraded, so too have we as individuals and communities suffered erosion and degradation. I would suggest that the regeneration of individuals and communities can be approached in the same way as that of environments; that is, we can think of ourselves and our communities as having similar tremendous powers of regeneration, able to recover from enormous damage, heal ancient wounds, re-create our natural diversity and abundance.
Also, as with regenerating environments, this process is both easy to initiate and entirely appropriate. Like land we are dynamic and will inevitably move in the appropriate direction as limits are peeled away. Like land, the identification of the key limiting factors operating on individuals and communities is essential. These limits need to be approached in a specific order if they are to be successfully resolved. I believe that as with land, what I have called here regeneration is part of our very nature and requires only the briefest opportunity to begin to grow and flourish.
When we consider ourselves and our communities, the primary limits to yield may well be found within the very patterns of our thinking and the closely coupled patterns of our behaviour. These may manifest themselves as, for example, addictions or habituations to substances and events. As at Argel, it was necessary to erect a fence in order to exclude the primary limit to yield, grazing animals. Given time, those same animals can be allowed occasional access; Argel is now so powerful it would take considerable effort to reduce it to degraded grassland. We could consider that we may have individual and cultural needs to erect fences and boundaries, in order to allow regeneration to take hold. Some of these may turn out to be temporary.
Tools for holistic thinking, such as Permaculture Design, present powerful challenges in themselves to older, ingrained patterns. Within Permaculture Design there are a few concepts or topics which are particularly suited to the communication of the holistic perspective; that is, concepts which permeate the ethics and principles. It should be clear from the above that I would acknowledge wilderness regeneration to be one of these key concepts in Permaculture Design.
Notes and acknowledgments:
1. I have used the word regeneration in a general sense, referring to the recolonisation of land by plant and animal species, whether native or exotic, rather than the precise ecological term which refers only to indigenous species. This has made it easier for me to generalise the concept and apply it to other complex systems, such as individuals and communities.
2. I am indebted to Phil Corbett for first bringing to my attention the similarities between erosion of soils, individuals and communities, (1991).
3. Thanks to Patrick Whitefield for useful comments to the text.
Notes to the yield table
With nearly half the protein content of oats, gorse provides a valuable fodder without the ploughing and aftercare required by a grain crop. It was used as a fodder crop traditionally in many areas (notably Wales and Ireland). It was usually ground between stones to a moss like consistency for feeding to cattle. Processing for horse was much simpler and involved basic devices to snap the gorse up; there is an example of an early machine at St. Fagans. It does not seem to have been used much for sheep although they will browse it in hard winters; in fact, local lore relates the hardness of the winter to the pin pricks of blood around a sheep's mouth resulting from gorse's spines.
I don't bother with a machine and just cut the gorse down with long handled loppers. If the area is likely to be taken over by bracken I tend to pollard the gorse at about waist height, otherwise I coppice it at ground level. New growth is rapid and soft (with coppice gorse in some traditions this was scythed off after a year for sheep). I tie the branches of gorse in bundles and hang them up for horses. This is an excellent addition to their winter feed and our Welsh Cobs would always leave their hay until they had finished the gorse. It also takes some time for them to eat as they are careful due to the spines; this again is a real advantage in winter and provides them with something to do. They will peel and eat every strip of bark that they can reach
The firewood from the gorse comes from the bundle of peeled sticks (a faggot) which is what you are left with when the horses have finished with it.
This makes good bedding (again, a traditional practice) but requires observation as some horse will just scoff it; not a good thing as it can kill them.
As mulch bracken is excellent. The fronds break down very quickly (within a year) producing a friable humus. The stalks take longer. At times I have bundled and tied quantities of bracken and left them for a bit (few months). All the fronds can then be shaken off leaving you with a bundle of stalks for a stick-like mulch. Due to the debate as to its poisonous qualities I tend not to use it immediately on food plants, preferring to mulch trees or add it to compost heaps.
I was amazed to see little plastic boxes of blackberries on sale in the local supermarket; amazed because the area abounds in the stuff. I was unable to find out where they had come from. This is one of my favourite plants and plays a key role in regeneration, protecting trees from browsing animals and arching out into open spaces. With some care (and a good pair of gloves) it is possible to encourage the bramble to follow the sides of paths, climb through trees or use simple trellis structures. Yields can be enormous and these are very conservative estimates. We have never managed to pick anywhere near all the blackberries on the site in one season.
Raspberries again can be very significant in regeneration. These are the native variety and produce a smaller but much tastier fruit than the cultivars we buy for our gardens. In ungrazed situations, as in regeneration projects, they can form dense stands, particularly around shrubs (such as gorse) and appear to be fairly mobile, occupying spaces for a year or so and then moving on.
Due to there being a good variety of mature trees on or around Argel, tree seedlings appeared in great abundance, in some areas numbering over 100 per square meter. At times this was like managing a tree nursery and it was fairly simple to extract plants for use elsewhere on the site or for sale. Some are easier to get up than other and it will also depend on the soil type they are in. Birch and ash can be ridiculously tough and I have just pulled out many of these. Despite whipping myself for having torn roots etc. they generally just get on with it and flourish. Other species, such as oak, may need a bit more care. The most useful tool I found for this task was a thin crowbar. In a densely populated patch you can use the crowbar between plants to thoroughly loosen the soil and then just lift them out.
Other plants and seed
Other plants, herbs, raspberries etc. can be lifted in similar ways or with a trowel. Seed collection depends largely on timing. I collect masses of foxglove seed each year; this is a great coloniser and can be sown on any large patches of bare ground you might get as a result of, say, excavations or similar. A tip I had off one visitor was to put a native seed mix into something like a small salt shaker and keep this in an outdoor-coat pocket; this can be sprinkled on any bits of bare soil that might appear after minor work outside.
This is a very conservative estimate. Due to the large numbers of mature conifers on our neighbour's land we get significant quantities of self seeding spruce (Norway and Sitka), hemlock and some pine. Depending on species, these can be Christmas trees, firewood, mulch, path foundations, etc. Thus does maintenance become harvesting, which is the key to wilderness management.
The fallow deer initially formed an invisible farm; I have heard a wide range of estimates for their actual numbers in Coed Y Brenin (which covers about 20,000 acres) and in the late eighties would tend from personal experience to put them at several thousand at least; we would often (daily) see deer in groups of up to about a dozen. Imagine, several thousand organic deer that no one feeds or injects or otherwise has much to do with. In the mid nineties the Forestry Commission began regular winter culls for various reasons including the increasing numbers, damage to tree and farm crops and rampant poaching with shotguns; not nice to come across a deer that was still alive but had lost half its head.
Although I excluded our livestock from Argel, it was simply not practical to attempt to exclude the deer (the forest garden required a two meter fence to be effective). So throughout the whole time period of the regeneration project the site was regularly grazed and browsed by deer. This served to maintain some clearings (and hence the original pasture species) and also paths. Their dung also provided concentrations of nutrients which favoured other plant species.
Our good friend Martin, when he was a forest ranger, brought us a road killed deer one day which Lyn skinned and I helped eat. I felt that this could be realistically included as part of the yield from Argel as deer spent so much time on it.
Rabbits form a similar wildish yield from the patch and more latterly, pheasants from the shooting grounds at Nannau have made their way to our place (we now have a semi-resident cock and hen).
Argel is generally the first bit of Penrhos that I show people as it is here that I have learned the earliest and most significant lessons relating to land specifically and life in general. In particular, I point out that if we are to work with nature not against it, then it is essential that we have some understanding of what nature is trying to do. This is where close observation of regeneration becomes hugely valuable.
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