To Leave (the Leaves) or not to Leave: Survey finds Most People Open to Leaving Leaves to Benefit Wildlife

RESTON, Va. — A National Wildlife Federation survey found that most people (72 percent) know that fallen leaves and leaf layers are beneficial to wildlife and biodiversity, yet only 25 percent are leaving their leaves where they fall. Thankfully, 82 percent of people are open to leaving leaves to benefit wildlife in the future.

The inaugural Leave the Leaves Report celebrates the start of Leave the Leaves Month this October by surveying nearly 1,200 people to better understand behaviors and sentiments toward Autumn leaves.

“The Leave the Leaves Report gives an inside look into what people think about leaving the leaves and what they’re doing, or not doing, with those leaves. We’re seeing the majority of people removing their leaves with only a small handful using the waste for other purposes such as compost or mulch,” said David Mizejewski, naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. “This tells us there’s an opportunity to educate the public about how fallen leaves can still benefit wildlife and the garden no matter if you remove them from your yard or leave them be.”

Survey results indicate that 51 percent of people who rake, remove or leaf blow their leaves are throwing them away, with 14 percent disposing of 10 bags or more of leaves per year. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste. Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases methane gas, which is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Many wildlife species also use the leaf layer as their primary habitat. In the case of moths, 94 percent of species rely on the leaf layer to complete their life cycle. The caterpillars find cover under leaves, emerging as adults the next spring. The vast majority of our backyard birds rely on those butterfly and moth caterpillars as the primary food source for their young during nesting season. If you remove all of the fallen leaves, there will be fewer of these insects in and around the yard and likely fewer birds, too.

When considering why people continue to rake, leaf blow, remove or collect Autumn leaves despite knowing the benefits, the report found that some (21 percent) are concerned with leaves smothering or ruining their lawn. For others (36 percent), they’re required to remove their leaves by either a homeowner’s association and/or city and municipality ordinances. Meaning, they couldn’t leave their leaves even if they wanted to.

But for the 43 percent who have no concerns or requirements with leaving leaves, they may welcome the break from yet another fall chore and help wildlife thrive in the process. 

“Leaving the leaves is so much more than a debate about raking vs. not raking. It’s about how we as individuals can impact wildlife right at home through gardening and other outdoor maintenance practices,” said Mary Phillips, head of Certified Wildlife Habitat and Garden for Wildlife programs. “Creating and enhancing garden habitat continues throughout the year with potential for significant impact in the off seasons as we prepare for current and future wildlife generations. Small changes, like leaving the leaves, are easy ways to directly benefit biodiversity and the environment right at home.”

The Leave the Leaves Report surveyed 1,188 people between the ages of 18 and over 65 living across the United States. Highlights of the report can be found below:  

  • 36 percent of respondents are required to rake their leaves by either a homeowner’s association and/or city and municipality ordinances. 
  • 25 percent of people leave their leaves where they fall. 
  • 49 percent are using collected leaves for mulch, compost or both. 
  • 43 percent of those surveyed have no concerns about leaving leaves in their yard. 
  • 21 percent are worried about fallen leaves smothering or ruining their lawn. 
  • 25 percent remove their leaves because they don’t like the way fallen leaves look in the yard.
  • 14 percent of those surveyed dispose of more than 10 bags of leaves per year, with 23 percent disposing between four to six per year.
  • 72 percent of respondents know that fallen leaves and the leaf layer are beneficial to wildlife and biodiversity. 
  • 82 percent of people are open to leaving the leaves to benefit wildlife.  
     
     

 

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