Sustainability in the horticulture department

Though all eyes are on the animals at our Zoos, there is a vast amount of work that goes into the vegetation at ZSL London and ZSL Whipsnade Zoos.

Most animal exhibits need suitable foliage to create the right environments for particular species, and let’s not forget all the plant matter our grazers get through!

The horticulture department works hard to ensure that the sourcing, growing and disposal of all of this vegetation is as environmentally friendly as possible.

Father and daughter looking at sign in Butterfly Paradise surrounded by plants.

Part of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) approved by Natural England, but our horticulture team go even further in trying to improve onsite diversity, collect sustainable timber and compost, as well as growing our own plants for the animals and exhibits.

Keeping chemical use down

Growing the vast variety of healthy plants for all the different species at the zoos, and keeping down unwanted invasives is a challenge. To keep pests down we use biocontrol, such as lacewing or ladybird larvae to eat pest insects.

Only minimal amounts of herbicides are used as a last resort for particularly resistant invasive species such as Japanese knotweed. These are applied in a very targeted way by injecting them directly into the weed plants, to reduce the amount of chemical reaching the soil. Otherwise, strimming and other mechanical control for weeds is used as much as possible.

Because of the problems that fertilizers can cause in waterways, we don't use fertiliser in the grounds of our Zoos. None of the plants are grown with mineral based fertilisers, that contain unsustainably sourced fish bone and blood, or peat based compost, which destroys valuable peat habitats.

Finally, all the tractors and other machinery that needs to be used to take care of the Zoo grounds is run on highly refined non-diesel fuels, that are less harmful to nearby humans and animals, and are less polluting of soil and waterways.


Most of the green waste produced at the zoos goes to good use. Waste wood is chipped to line enclosures and larger logs are piled into log stacks in the grounds to provide homes for invertebrates. The rest of the green waste is composted off site.

Water saving

Water is another valuable resource we need to use sparingly. We do not need to water plants in the grounds much, by choosing species strategically and planting at the correct times of year, as well as relying on plants natural resilience.

Log piles make excellent homes for all sorts of native insects
Log piles make excellent homes for all sorts of native insects

Procuring plants

It is difficult to find all the plants needed for all the different species at the zoo, but the horticulture team do their best to ensure new plants are from sustainable provenance and require as little transport as possible. We source plants using local suppliers who demonstrate good environmental practice to keep the environmental impact as low as possible.

Thousands of saplings of native trees are also grown regularly to make sure the grounds are well vegetated, even if older trees and shrubs die off. In early 2017, we planted more than 2,500 native trees at ZSL London Zoo, to provide some of our plant eating animals with lots of good food.

Traditional woodland management methods are used to keep the plants in the grounds producing regular supplies of new animal fodder, and the team use plant material grown on-site to produce leaf silage for the winter months. Silage involves the fermentation of plant matter, which produced lactic acid from microbial activity. This preserves the matter well and lactic acid is digestible by animals, providing a nutritious supply of food when plant growth is low.