African Savanna

The second challenge was to hide parts of the 2m tall gabion wall at the back of the animal area. The gabions had been built with cheaper local limestone rather than the lovely sandstone and needed hiding. A vigorous bramble, Rubus ‘Betty Ashburner,’ was chosen as it would fall down the 2m face of the gabion easily. But how do we stop the animals browsing? An electric fence was put up along the entire length, which helped, but the animals had time to ponder the problem. Scimitar horned oryx Oryx dammah turned their heads sideways and got their horns behind the fence to nibble at the Rubus. Giraffes Giraffa camelopardalis, bless them, just reached over the top and bent down and all that was left was a few well-nibbled clumps that did not get anywhere. The planting was therefore not effective at first, at least not until the habitat was split and the largest part with the longest section of gabion wall was used only for the southern white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum simum – then the Rubus took off. After a couple of years and a well-established root system, the next summers’ growth went the full 2m drop and fully hid the gabion wall. The tips hit the sand surface and started to root in, as brambles do. The question was whether this was going to be a problem? Now you must remember, these were southern white rhinos, and they are grazers. They normally eat grass or other vegetation at ground level rather than browsing – i.e. eating shrubs or low trees. They had shown no interest in the bramble, but it had been on the vertical. Now it was rooted in the sand surface. After a year or so, as they grazed any growth on the ground, they discovered they liked the taste, didn’t they! They followed the growth up as far as they could reach, becoming browsers, which was nearly the top of the gabion wall. Once all the growth was gone, they forgot about it. The following spring, when it grew down again, it was not touched at all – until it reached the ground and was rediscovered. Again, they nibbled their way back to the top of the gabion. That’s how it carried on – growth one year, eaten the next – bare one year, covered the next.

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Rubus ‘Betty Ashburner’ in a good year, before being eaten again. Interesting that the rhinos leave the Italian alder Alnus cordata alone, which tolerates poor, dry soils and the small tree of heaven Ailanthus altissima – at least until they are big enough to rub against it, causing bark damage…