Guest Blog – NHM threatens wildlife (garden) by Peter Marren

Greyface Dartmoor sheep grazing in the garden of the Natural History Museum, London Photo: Mrjohncummings (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Greyface Dartmoor sheep grazing in the garden of the Natural History Museum, London
Photo: Mrjohncummings (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
How many of you, I wonder, have visited the wildlife garden, nestled in the western corner of the grounds of the Natural History Museum? I must admit I hadn’t until last week, and was amazed at what I found. Created exactly twenty years ago as the Museum’s ‘first living exhibition’, it boasts a miniature chalk down, a tiny, sheep-grazed meadow, worked hazel coppice and perhaps the best clear pond in central London, all within a single acre. A true urban oasis, it is used by bats, frogs and newts, is brightened in early summer by cowslips, bee orchids and burnet moths, and has a bird list of more than fifty species. All told an incredible 3,000 species of wild plants, animals and insects have been recorded by museum staff. The garden hosts educational visits by thousands of schoolchildren annually. For the rest of us it offers a restorative walk among living things after all the non-living exhibits inside.

Photo: Sten Porse (Own work by uploader) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Sten Porse (Own work by uploader) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Now the garden is under threat by a scheme to alleviate queues during busy times. The plan is to drive a ‘metres-wide’ concrete path straight through the garden. It will entail levelling the ground by up to two metres, draining the pond and bulldozing away the miniature down and meadow. In their place we are promised some concrete terracing on which the Museum proposes to plant fruit trees and maybe a herb garden. A new ‘dew pond’ will be created using water from the Museum’s roof. All this, we are assured, will ‘allow visitors to interact with the natural environment’.

The new garden will be the work of the winning contractor, the landscape architect Kim Wilkie. Some of the other bids were less destructive of the existing garden (and less expensive) than his, but it was Wilkie’s radical solution that won the favour of the Museum’s director, Sir Michael Dixon, his Board of Trustees and his new ‘head of public engagement’, Justin Morris. Wilkie himself is dismissive of the garden’s value. It is “indistinguishable from any municipal garden anywhere in the country”, he sniffs (this garden with 3,000 species). He admits it has some “hardcore fans” but thinks they can all be won over by “imaginative replacements”.

Far be it for me to doubt such an authority but it seems to me that an ordinary municipal garden is exactly what is being proposed here. It will be little more than a designed urban thoroughfare built largely of concrete. There are plans to ‘translocate’ some of the waterweeds and beasties from the doomed pond, as if biodiversity is something you can parcel up and move about willy-nilly. In fact it took fifteen years for this pond to reach maturity. Trees sheltering the Museum grounds from the main road will also be preserved. The Museum has no choice for they are protected by a Tree Preservation Order.

By Sten Porse (Own work by uploader) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sten Porse (Own work by uploader) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Museum claims that it has consulted its 300 staff and that they have “responded positively”. In fact it would be hard to find anyone who supports the proposal, unless it was the naïve botanist who looked forward “to monitoring the recovery”. At a recent packed staff meeting not a single member of staff spoke out in support. They seem in fact to be thoroughly ashamed of the plan. But of course they are not going to say so in public. It is as much as their jobs are worth.

Those in the know tell me that this destruction is completely unnecessary. There are much less radical solutions available that would route the new path around rather than through the garden – as indeed some of the rival bids proposed. So why throw away such a precious facility that has taken so much hard work, over twenty years, to achieve? What kind of message will that send out to the Museum’s millions of visitors from home and overseas? That wildlife is ultimately disposable?

It is not too late to stop this vandalism. The project will need planning permission and it is through that route that we can make our feelings known. An online petition gained 2,226 signatures in a matter of a few weeks. If you agree with me, and with the majority of staff at the Museum, please consider signing Save the Wildlife Garden. You might also want to write to the director at: m.dixon@nhm.ac.uk

Photo: PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

marrenPeter Marren has contributed Guest Blogs here before (Where green objectives clash, 26 January 2015; Ashes to ashes, 7 November 2012; Wildlife NGOs, 7 October 2011) and his excellent book Rainbow Dust – three centuries of delight in British butterflies was reviewed here a while back.

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27 Replies to “Guest Blog – NHM threatens wildlife (garden) by Peter Marren”

  1. I look forward to visiting the wildlife garden, as much as the museum, so I felt quite shocked that the management would consider destroying such a lovely place. This is no ordinary "municipal" garden.

    The Museum's director obviously thinks that a path to quicken visitor journey time to see extinct exhibits is worth more than the living natural world.

    I'd already signed the petition, but will write to the director to voice my views too.

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  2. I live in Newcastle upon Tyne, 250 miles north of London and was unaware of this garden until recently when I first heard of this threat to it. Although I have never visited - and may never visit - the garden I am appalled at this crass proposal. The museum should not be in the business of destroying biodiversity and it would appear that this scheme is unnecessary anyway with other schemes offering the desired alleviation of visitor congestion without destroying the garden. Kim Wilkie's comments mark him out as a boorish philistine and the trustees of the museum, who should know better, are just as bad. I do hope that the scheme can be stopped although, given the Board's apparent determination to portray the lack of staff enthusiasm as a positive response to the scheme, I cannot help fearing that they will be deaf to objections and impervious to arguments against this vandalism.

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  3. I was working at Plantlife in 1995, when it was based in the museum, and when the garden was created. It was a big event for the NHM and they were very proud of it back then. I guess the "shock of the new" has worn off now after 20 years and no-one in senior management at the museum can see its value, when of course 20 years on it is so much more valuable for nature! I was surprised to see they have sheep now. Lovely.

    As much as anything, the garden shows what can be done for nature, starting from scratch; but also, just how important the location is. 5 and a half million people visited the NHM in 2013-14. Even if only 1% walked through the wildlife garden, that's probably still far more visitors than many remote rural nature reserves receive.

    If there's a planning application, then there will be opportunities for objecting, far more effective than signing the petition (though numbers there also count.) Mark can you put up the link to the planning application please - so your readers can object and comment.

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  4. That has encouraged me to plan a trip to the NHM in the autumn so that I can express my view on this action that sounds like a typical top down plan, to sweep away the established to replace it with something different.

    Inappropriate development?

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    1. Dave,

      The NHM is not a public authority within the meaning of the Act, thus the provisions of s.40 don't apply; in just the same way that they don't apply to you if you alter the landscape in your garden.

      However, section 40 does apply to the local planning authority (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)).

      RBKC's planning website is: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/planning/searches/default.aspx#tabs and a search for 'Natural History Museum' suggests that no application has been submitted.

      However, what I have discerned is that the NHM Garden is designated as a Borough Grade 2 non-statutory site; having been raised from a local site in the RKBC Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) [see https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/PRINT_LBAP2010_2015_V3_reduced%20PR_SL-%20Appx%202.pdf; page 82] and therefore receives some protection under the local plan. It is also designated as a 'flagship site' by Kensington and Chelsea Biodiversity Partnership.

      It would therefore be expected that a full ecology survey completed to the necessary standards and in accordance with CIEEM's Preliminary Ecological Appraisal guidelines and British Standard BS42020: Biodiversity — Code of practice for planning and development is followed.

      Keep an eye out for the application.

      Richard

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  5. As well as the intrinsic value of the garden itself, there are the two decades of work undertaken by NHM scientists, staff and volunteers in monitoring and maintaining the wildlife garden. To end this experiment and sweep this away is to show a profound ignorance of the important work that has gone on over the past 20 years in educating people about the importance and value of bringing the natural environment into the city.

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  6. Buglife wrote to Justin Morris at the NHM on 3rd August raising our concerns about the proposed development.

    I said:-

    "I understand that there are currently proposals to redevelop the existing NHM wildlife garden. The objectives of this work appear to be very sound and potentially synergistic with the existing wildlife interest of the area. We would support the expansion of the area and improvement of the facilities to engage more people with urban wildlife. However it is very concerning that the proposals as they currently stand appear to cause destruction to important existing features such as the pond and Poplar trees. Such features develop more ecological interest and importance over time, and these features are long established. Hence the Poplar trees support a population of the nationally scarce Drab wood soldierfly (Solva marginata) and another dead wood living species nationally scarce species the Variable false darkling beetle (Conopalpus testaceus) is also present, a species defined by the London Biodiversity Partnership as being Rare in London.

    I urge you to incorporate the existing wildlife of the area into the new plans in a sympathetic manner and ensure that the site continues to support the special species that depend upon it.

    Please can you send me the complete list of invertebrate species recorded from the wildlife garden."

    The Natural History Museum responded:-

    "This information is currently a work in progress but will be published in the future via the Greenspace Information for Greater London website: http://www.gigl.org.uk/ . We are therefore withholding it under Section 22 of the FOI Act (information intended for publication)."

    It would appear that the Natural History Museum is more in touch with FoI loopholes than the issue of biodiversity conservation or the views of their staff.

    Matt

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  7. I've not visited it either, like many I'd rather it stayed if only to send a positive message about preserving the little we have left. I work in London as a soft landscaper and believe me it is fast disappearing. Back gardens (already split up when houses convert to flats) are being filled with artificial turf, off road parking and soon to be rusting barbeques. It will be no surprise to many here that some of the very best (widest diversity) are those that have an area- though not the whole garden- left entirely undisturbed. In such gardens it is still possible to find frogs, toads, newts even lizards along with decent numbers of birds

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  8. All part and parcel of the NHM's obsessionwith visitor numbers. Long gone is the time when it was an experience about seeing natural history and species diversity. The number of specimens on display now is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago, and flashy exhibitions are all the rage (plus larger and larger shops). Get rid of flashy exhibitions and there won't be any queues. What was once a centre of taxonomic and curatorial excellence is now pandering to a public, obsessed with dinosaurs and shopping, with an attention span of goldfish. It's taken 20 years for the garden to mature; it will take less than 20 days to destroy all that investment.

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  9. I note the following in the description of the proposed changes to the oasis of the NHM garden, "All this, we are assured, will ‘allow visitors to interact with the natural environment’. It is this so-called "interaction" that is damaging bare ground bridleways and track sites up and down the land. Its' use related to "bringing people to nature" as an access feature actually too often results in the destruction of nature, as it will here. Thus I also deplore the much trumpeted "Nature and Well-being Bill", since this seems to be all about human well-being instead of the health of wildlife and the sites they still occur in.

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