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Darwin survey shows fall in plant species

31 July 2006

The results of a wildflower survey that recreated a survey originally conducted by Charles Darwin 150 years ago, reveals a 15% fall in plant species.

Lesser stitchwort flower in the grounds of Down House

Lesser stitchwort flower in the grounds of Down House

Between June 2005 and May 2006, scientists and relatives of Darwin surveyed the plants in Great Pucklands meadow, the area next to Darwin's home at Down house in the London Borough of Bromley.

Darwin recorded 142 plant species a century and a half ago, while the recent survey recorded 119. The area has fared better than many comparable areas in Britain and the reduction is thought to be due to changes in farm practices rather than any competition from other non-native species.

Down House, Darwin's previous home

Down House, Darwin's previous home

'While scientists tend to focus on rare or unusual species, we have studied what is in essence a rather ordinary piece of grassland,' said Johannes Vogel, Keeper of Botany at the Natural History Museum.

'It is this ordinariness that makes it significant. No one else was doing the kind of surveying that Darwin carried out at Great Pucklands, so there is no other data to show the changes to Britain's flora over the last century.'

Darwin's survey
Charles Darwin © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

Charles Darwin

In 1855, Darwin decided to record all the plants he could find around his home in the Great Pucklands meadow. His observations contributed to the groundbreaking understanding of biodiversity he presented in his famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

'A lot of Darwin's groundbreaking work revolved around simple experiments and detailed observations in his garden and meadows,' said Toby Beasley, Head Gardener at Down House. 'The re-survey of Great Pucklands shows how we are still using this area as an outdoor laboratory just as he did and it reveals that you can see many of the plants that Darwin saw 150 years ago.'

Long-term conservation

The survey results will help guide long-term conservation and management of the grassland. Johannes Vogel adds 'Now that we have recorded the changes to Great Pucklands over the last 150 years, we will be working with English Heritage to recover the field's plant diversity.'

This collaborative project was carried out by the Natural History Museum, English Heritage, the London Borough of Bromley, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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