Natural History Museum must not destroy its Wildlife Garden

A haven of peace, tranquillity and biodiversity in the heart of London: the wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum. Photo: Cary Grant.
A haven of peace, tranquillity and biodiversity in the heart of London: the wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum. Photo: Cary Grant.
A proposed redesign of the Natural History Museum's grounds in London would cause some unfortunate collateral damage, writes Gary Grant - the destruction of the Museum's 21 year-old wildlife garden, an ecological jewel in the heart of London which features over 3,000 species of plant and animal in just one lovingly tended acre. The Museum must think again!
If an institute ostensibly committed to conserving biodiversity can propose the removal of its own patch of biodiversity, the hidden message to the wider community is that the conservation of biodiversity is not such a priority after all.

On 13th May 2016, the Natural History Museum (NHM) submitted plans to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Planning Committee for permission to transform its grounds.

The intention, according to the Design and Access Statement, is to improve existing access arrangements.

There is no doubt that much could be done to improve the grounds, improve access and boost its biodiversity - one of the Museum's 'three big narratives' is the 'Diversity of Life'.

However there is a major flaw with the plans. Drawings submitted with the application (ref PP/16/02942) show that the museum's Wildlife Garden would be largely replaced by an area labelled 'Western Grounds'.

Although the plans for the Western Grounds, including new paths, a circular pond, terraces and planting, do not seem objectionable in themselves, the problem is that to build these new features would involve destroying most of the existing Wildlife Garden.

That is not acceptable. I am certain that better ways of bringing more people through that part of the site occupied by the Wildlife Garden, without destroying the Wildlife Garden in the process, can be found. If it was made clear to the designers that the Wildlife Garden must be protected, they would find a way to achieve that.

Origins of the Wildlife Garden

In the early 1990s, Clive Jermy (1932-2014), a fern specialist and one of the Museum's scientists, had approached the London Wildlife Trust (LWT) to discuss the possibility of transforming part of the Museum's rather sterile landscape of lawns and rose beds into something that could demonstrate the potential for creating habitats by planting native species in natural associations in urban areas.

I was running LWT's consultancy arm at the time and together with landscape architect Mark Loxton and my ecologist colleague Denis Vickers, we worked with Clive and other scientists in the Museum to put together plans for a wildlife garden.

Our inspirations were projects like the temporary William Curtis Ecological Park (established on a lorry park by Tower Bridge in 1976 and re-developed in1985) and Camley Street Natural Park (which was established in 1984 on a derelict canal-side coal yard behind Kings Cross Station. It thrives still).

Clive Jermy succeeded in persuading the NHM management to back the project and, supported by a grant from English Nature, and sponsorship and help in kind from many others, the garden opened in 1995.

The site is relatively small (one acre) and shaded by huge London plane trees, which were, and are still are, protected by Tree Preservation Orders, but a range of habitats and features were squeezed in, including woodland, ponds, meadows and a chalk bank.

If an institute ostensibly committed to conserving biodiversity can propose the removal of its own patch of biodiversity, the hidden message to the wider community is that the conservation of biodiversity is not such a priority after all.

Sir Neil Chalmers, who was the Museum's Director at the time, said at the opening, "Our wildlife garden symbolizes a unique interaction between two important elements which underpin our work: science and education. It creates for the first time an outdoor classroom combined with a living laboratory."

The magic begins

That's when the real magic began. Nature colonised the garden and museum staff and volunteers monitored and documented the process - and have now identified over 3,000 species of plants and animals there. Monitoring of habitat creation schemes is often inadequate and patchy and sometimes absent altogether, usually because of problems with funding and continuity.

In contrast, at the Wildlife Garden, dozens of specialists have been sampling and recording and pondering the significance of each find for the past 20 years.

Plants (including algae, bryophytes, lichens and vascular plants), invertebrates (including dragonflies, butterflies, flies, beetles, bees, spiders, mites, molluscs and earthworms) and vertebrates (including birds, bats and other small mammals) have been monitored according to the methods chosen by each specialist and the results have been put into a database that has been maintained since 2002.

Thousands of schoolchildren and others have visited the garden and have learnt about Britain's lowland habitats and wildlife through hands-on activities that cannot be replicated indoors.

Around 3,000 species have been recorded in the Wildlife Garden during the last 20 years, including 2 new British moth species, 28 Notable species and 7 UK Red Data Book species. The total list of beetles stands at 356 species in 47 families, representing 10% of the British beetle species, a remarkable tally considering that the garden is only one acre in central London.

There are 34 species of bee and 17 species of digger wasp confirmed and most of these probably nest on site, because immediately adjacent areas are unsuitable. There are mining bees nesting in the meadow and bumblebees nesting under stumps. The earl wasp Rhopalum coarctatum nests in a beetle burrow in an old fence post.

The spider and the fly

207 species of fly from 50 families have been recorded. Museum staff have confirmed the presence of 2 Endangered species of fly (Chrysopilus laetus and Acinia corniculata) and 4 Notable species of fly (Beris clavipes, Solva marginata, Vanoyia tenuicornis and Neoleria propinqua).

The Endangered tree snipefly, Chrysopilus laetus (Rhagionidae) is known from a single male specimen caught in a Malaise trap in June 2015. For many years this snipefly, a species which requires dead wood, was thought to be restricted to Windsor Great Park.

The Wildlife Garden has a richer spider fauna than expected, with 80 species altogether. Amongst them is Theridiosoma gemmosum, a Nationally Scarce (Notable B) species. Two spiders of note are Anyphaena sabina and Cryptachaea blattea, first found in the UK in 2011.

I was particularly interested to read that Anyphaena sabina was also found on the green roof on Transport for London's HQ in above St James' Park Station. I could go on. The point of including these examples is to demonstrate the depth and breadth of information gathered and the commitment on the part of Museum staff and volunteers in making these observations.

Those who would like to know more about the species that have been recorded and the impressive roster of recorders should read the forthcoming London Naturalist article, which is now available online in draft.

Leading the way

The Natural History Museum has led the way in showing what can be achieved in restoring nature in urban areas and boosting biodiversity. It has meticulously documented that process - a process that has ecological, scientific, educational and cultural significance.

This is a process that has taken 20 years and demonstrates to others a new culture of working with nature. It is true that what has been done before (that is, creating wildlife habitat on cleared or impoverished sites) can be done again. Once the Wildlife Garden is destroyed habitats can be created again around the new access routes.

It may be possible to compensate for any losses or even achieve a net gain in the long term by undertaking enhancements across the whole estate (although this has yet to be demonstrated). That misses the point though. The garden is not an asset to be replaced but a process that should continue - in line with the Museum's mission to "challenge the way people think about the natural world - its past, present and future."

If an institute ostensibly committed to the conservation of biodiversity can propose the removal of its own patch of biodiversity, the hidden message to the wider community is that the conservation of biodiversity is not such a priority after all. There is also an implication that the efforts of museum staff in nurturing and documenting the garden are inconsequential and that the lofty ideals of those who launched the project were never understood or have been forgotten.

The destruction of the garden would constitute the unnecessary termination of an important long-term demonstration project. In its current form, the Natural History Museum's application must be rejected.



Petition: The online petition signed by 37,000 people to halt the plans is here: online petition.

More information: The NHM's planning application can be found and commented upon by clicking the link and searching on the reference PP/16/02942.

Gary Grant FCIEEM is a consultant ecologist specialising in urban greening. He is a Director of the Green Infrastructure Consultancy, where he works on bringing biodiversity to the most severe urban environments with green roofs, living walls and rain gardens.

Books: Gary's most recent book is The Water Sensitive City, published in April 2016 by Wiley. Also available is Ecosystem services come to town - greening cities by working with nature, published by Wiley in 2012.