Natural History Museum hit by garden row

It's a lovely tranquil spot in south-west London, but now the Natural History Museum's wildlife garden is at the centre of a bitter dispute.

The Natural History Museum wants to increase the number of people who visit its wildlife garden, but will there be a cost to the garden’s biodiversity? © stevenallan/iStock
The Natural History Museum wants to increase the number of people who visit its wildlife garden, but will there be a cost to the garden’s biodiversity? © stevenallan/iStock

Described by eminent naturalist Peter Marren as “a successful outdoor classroom” and “living laboratory” and “probably the best-recorded acre (it actually covers some 20,000m2, equivalent to nearly five acres or about three football pitches) in Britain, with some 3,000 species of animals, insects and plants”, the wildlife garden of the Natural History Museum (NHM) has become an unlikely point of conflict for conservationists and scientists.

Advertisement

In one corner, is the museum itself, which wants to remodel the garden in order to drive more visitors through it and increase public engagement with the concepts of biodiversity and conservation.

And in the other, an alliance of voices from the world of wildlife gardening, ecology and conservation who say the museum’s claims that its proposals will benefit wildlife are misleading and that the work it’s planning to do will rip up 20 years’ worth of monitoring and data collection.

Speaking for the museum, Dr John Tweddle – head of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity – told BBC Wildlife that the redevelopment had initially come about partly because of a need to reduce queuing at the main entrance.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to engage more of our 5 million visitors with biodiversity,” he said. “At the moment, about 1 per cent [50,000] go to the garden, we are working on getting that up to 20 per cent [1 million].”

Impacts of redesign

The garden is currently a hotchpotch of habitats, that were laid down just over 20 years ago, and which include native woodland, grassland, ponds and associated marginal vegetation and heathland.

According to Tweddle, only the heathland – which they have found hard to maintain – will be lost in the redesign, while the “amenity grassland” and “privet hedgerow” areas will be reduced in size.

“The woodland will be expanded,” he said. “One of the ponds will stay as it is, and the chalk and neutral grasslands will be moved – translocated to an area that is ecologically suitable – and will double in size.”

This, as Tweddle acknowledges, is a significant focus for the controversy. “We know translocation is not easy,” he said. “We are coming from a perspective that that you don’t mess with biodiversity unless you have to. You don’t change any landscape unless it is the last resort.”

But the museum’s claim that translocation is necessary in order to enable the massive, 20-fold, increase in visitor access it is aiming for has been severely criticised by individual ecologists and conservation groups.

Dr Stephen Head, of the Wildlife Gardening Forum – an organisation with 800 members seeking “to promote the better management of gardens for biodiversity” – claimed there was an extraordinary level of opposition to the plans from experts.

“The ecological community cannot understand why one of our most important biodiversity organisations is prepared to demonstrate that it is permissible to degrade a flourishing and ecologically diverse habitat of borough significance to create a grandiose but less integrated and likely less biodiverse plan through habitat relocation,” Head wrote in his objection to the planning application submitted to Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council in May.

Dr Ken Thompson, an ecologist from the University of Sheffield and the author of several popular books on wildlife gardening, said the garden – as it currently exists – is a mosaic of British habitats in an urban setting.

“As far as I know, it’s unique,” he added. “You create [these habitats] in the middle of a large city, and then you say, ‘What’s going to turn up? Are we going to get anything that belongs in lowland heath, grassland and so on?’ and the answer is that a surprising amount of the appropriate stuff does arrive. It’s astonishing. There’s intense monitoring recording this, and it will only get more interesting as time goes on, which is why we are so annoyed.”

“With every day that passes, it becomes more interesting as a unique ecological experiment,” Thompson concluded. “To do anything to it is a crime.”

Benefits for biodiversity?

Another bitter area of dispute has been a paper – submitted as part of the planning application – authored by three scientists from the museum and claiming the changes to the wildlife garden will result in a 6.6-10.8 per cent overall increase in biodiversity.

The paper has been savaged by Stephen Head as “deeply flawed” and by the University of Reading’s associate professor of field botany Jonathan Mitchell as not “a scientifically credible piece of work on which to base a modern planning decision.”

But Tweddle defended the science as robust. “This is rigorous science written by a research team who have authored hundreds of scientific papers,” he said.

The scientific modelling, Tweddle added, was an extension of a methodology published in the respected journal Nature and will be submitted for peer-review “in the coming months”.

“It’s something extra that we have chosen to do – an additional check that our plans will positively benefit biodiversity.”

A home for rare species

There are other areas of concern – the modelling paper claims the garden has few rare species, but both Head and Ken Thompson say this is not true. Indeed, only last September the museum’s worm expert Dr Emma Sherlock discovered a species known only as Dendrobena pygmaea in some dead wood.

“It’s Britain’s rarest earthworm,” said Thompson, “It’s not been seen anywhere for 30 years.”

“When it comes to insects, where do we start – 356 species of beetle, 10 per cent of all beetles in Britain, 28 of which have some kind of published conservation status; 208 species of fly, two of them endangered.

“To say it has no rare species is just a lie.”

Opposition from within

And, finally, there is the fact – acknowledged by Tweddle – that many of the museum’s own scientists do not support the changes planned for the garden. A spokesperson for the union Prospect said: “Probably 80-90 per cent of staff members are opposed.”

Tweddle said that this percentage was true for those scientists who are members of the union. “From our perspective, an important component of union staff are concerned about the changes, and it’s important we recognise this.”

Advertisement

Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine