We sat down with Harvey Tweats via video to talk about his organization, Celtic Reptile & Amphibian. The organization breeds endangered reptiles and amphibians to reintroduce them to the wild.
“We are living in an unprecedented era in terms of wildlife loss,” says Harvey Tweats, an 18-year-old rewilder and co-founder of Celtic Reptile & Amphibian.
“This is the age of extinction where 50% of species could go extinct in the near future, and that’s incredibly frightening. Nature is our life support system,” says Tweats. “It filters the water we drink, it creates the air we breathe and the food we eat, so it’s incredibly important that we protect nature.”
Tweats mentions a study that found only 3% of ecosystems are fully intact. This means 97% of global ecosystems have pieces missing, many of these pieces being different species of animals in those ecosystems.
So what are Tweats and childhood friend Tom Whitehurst doing about it? The pair are on a mission to rewild the UK by restoring native reptile and amphibian species that are extinct in the country or on the decline.
The UK’s Need for Rewilding
It’s alarming to think how much wildlife has been lost in the United Kingdom.
“The problem that we have in the UK is there’s virtually no wilderness,” says Tweats.
Tweats explains that large carnivores–wolves, bears, wolverines and lynx–have been hunted to extinction. All large herbivores, like bison and moose, are gone.
“If we really want to fight the climate crisis and fight the ecological crisis we have to start restoring,” Tweats continues. “Celtic Reptile & Amphibian breeds extinct reptiles and amphibians native to the UK with a view to reintroduce them to areas appropriate for the species so that we can rebuild a little bit of that web of life back.”
Food for Thought: Why Reptiles and Amphibians?
Why reptiles and amphibians? Tweats put it simply – “The fact of the matter is, they are food. Especially frogs and lizards.”
Reptiles and amphibians are food for birds, other reptiles and amphibians, and various other species. To get back what was lost on a larger scale, each piece of the ecosystem needs to be present for it to survive.
Tweats and Whitehurst are working on restoring ten different types of these species as food to support an ecosystem. But they don’t do it all at once.
“Reintroductions aid in creating self-sustaining populations,” states Tweats. “We don’t constantly reintroduce every year. They are reintroduced in periods of every 3-5 years with the aim of them becoming self-sufficient, breeding, and supplying food to so many species.”
With the preliminary work done, Tweats is very hopeful that in the coming years they can look back at many successful reintroductions. While they have not been done on this scale or in this context, reptile reintroductions have been successful all over the world.
The Beginning: Rewilding Inspiration
Tweats’ inspiration for breeding endangered reptiles and amphibians on a larger scale was sparked when he became friends with rewilder expert, Derek Gow. Tweats describes how Gow single-handedly brought back water voles and beavers from extinction in the UK.
Beavers had been extinct in the UK for about 400 years and Gow successfully reintroduced them to the wild. Now, they are growing in numbers and can be found all over the UK.
With support for his idea to rewild the UK with lizards, frogs and turtles, Tweats has gone from idea to a successful company in just three years. Now the facility is the UK’s largest breeding facility for reptiles and amphibians.
Reintroduction at Work
Running the facility requires Tweats and Whitehurst to take on many roles, and the work changes constantly. When Tweats describes a typical day, the tasks range from feeding all the animals and building enclosures to talking to the media, meetings with wildlife biologists, and project meetings with reintroduction affiliates.
“Everyday there’s something different,” says Tweats. “Eggs are hatching one day, another day we’re filming for TV, and next day digging a pond.”
Tweats describes a set of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) guidelines for reintroduction and translocation. The guidelines ensure the reintroduction is as successful as possible and the pair follows protocol with any of the work they do, using a science-based approach.
Bringing Species Back to the UK
Tweats and Whitehurst are breeding some exciting species that have never been bred or, to many people, seen before.
Tweats describes the Moor frog as a species that’s troubling to breed, yet the duo had success and made the national news as they saw the males turn bright blue. The vibrant blue coloring was known to occur in the breeding season for Moor frogs.
“That’s incredibly rare to have in captivity,” says Tweats. “So it was potentially the first time in 700 years that a Moor frog has gone blue.”
They are also working on captive husbandry of smooth snakes, a nationally scarce species that’s rarely bred in captivity. Tweats thinks if they work out how to breed it, “it opens up the possibilities to breed more species on a much wider level.”
Tweats and Whitehurst are not only focusing on species extinct to the UK. They also breed species that are declining in numbers, like the common toad or Viviparous lizards. This proactive stance is protecting these species that could be gone in the next 10-20 years.
Being a Teen While Running a Conservation Center
Like other students around the world in 2020, the friends were in their final year of school–studying from home. Tweats saw the silver lining in their situation. “The pandemic actually helped because we got time off school. We pulled quite a few all-nighters, it was physical labor to build the facilities in the day and then building the website literally all night.”
But, Tweats insists, “It’s not work when you’re having fun.”
Now finished with his last year of school, Tweats is taking a gap year before he moves onto his university education. He wants to get the business to the level where it can be more self-sustaining.
When asked about work-life balance, Tweats smiles and says he “likes to socialize” and enjoys activities like running and reading. As advice to other students working on their passion projects, Tweats stresses balance. “Keep doing what you’re doing, but also have some downtime. It makes your workload efficiency a lot better. But at the same time, keep that fire, keep that determination within you to make change.”
It’s clear that Tweats is not only good at what he does, but loves the work. “At the end of the day, there is nothing more rewarding than doing what you feel like you were born to do. There’s constant motivation from that side of things.”
Challenges and Rewards
The 2020 WWF’s Living Planet report found 68% of wildlife has disappeared globally since the 1970s–with the UK being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Tweats describes a hesitancy within the country to bring back animals that have been gone for hundreds of years.
This reluctance brings a host of bureaucratic challenges Tweats and Whitehurst face on the rewilding mission. Tweats explains it can be a very “tear your hair out system” because people can “play games” with reintroduction.
However, as Tweats counters with the rewards of the job, the 18-year-old seems wise beyond his years. “To sit there on a warm day and watch European pond turtles do what they have done for 10 million years as a species, and to do what they have done as turtles which have been on this earth for 200 million years, is amazing. And when you sit there and watch an animal just busy about and carry on with its life, it reminds you what it is to be alive, and also human. It’s the beauty of looking at an animal, looking into its eyes and feeling two souls connect within time and space. And it’s in that very moment of exchange, all the bureaucracy, politics and nastiness just falls away. It reminds you why you do the job, which is to build a better world for all living things.”
Advice to Others
Tweats advice to students wanting to launch an initiative dive into their passion project? Go slow and don’t rush into it. “Think about it, research, speak to people, and gain expertise. The amazing thing about passion is no matter what happens to you, you always find time to do what you love.”
After a beat, Tweats has an even more crucial piece of advice–be a people’s person. Even in a field where he’s working with animals, he’s realized human connections are key to getting anything done.
“When you can connect with people, it doesn’t matter what field of interest or subject,” says Tweats. “If you can connect to people, and talk to people in a way that is enthusiastic and funny, then you’ve won the battle.”
And if you’re shy? Tweats recommends getting a job at a bar (when you’re of age) to build confidence and level up your communication skills. You will talk to hundreds of people in a day, hear about their different life experiences, and learn how to connect on any topic.
So what’s next for Celtic Reptile & Amphibian? In just three years Tweats and Whitehurst have taken an idea and grown to be the leaders in their field. Their next goals are to expand the organization and get species reintroduced nationally across the UK. But above all, they want to inspire the world to start thinking about rewilding.
“Although it’s a small piece of rewilding, we hope the message that Celtic Reptile & Amphibian holds is that we can rewild the world, we must rewild the world, we must do it now.”