The Natural History Museum will today announce the results of a wildflower survey that recreated a study originally conducted by Charles Darwin 150 years ago.
Completed in 1856, Darwin's study of the meadow next to his family home, Down House in the London Borough of Bromley, provided a unique snapshot of the diversity of Britain's plant life in one specific time and place. A survey of the same site conducted over the past year shows that this area of grassland has fared better than many comparable areas in Britain, but the number of plant species has fallen by 15 per cent.
In 1855, Darwin set about recording all the plants he could find in the sloping meadow, known as Great Pucklands, which adjoined his family home. Darwin's observations contributed to the groundbreaking understanding of biodiversity he presented in his famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Over the past year botanists, conservationists and volunteers from the local area have retraced Darwin's footsteps and recorded each plant species present in the 13.5-acre site. This collaborative project was carried out by the Natural History Museum, English Heritage, which owns and cares for Down House, and the London Borough of Bromley, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
While Darwin recorded 142 different plant species growing in the meadow, 119 species were recorded on the same site between June 2005 and May 2006. The reduction may be due to changes in farm practice rather than competition with non-native species, as unusually few of these were found. The survey results will help guide long-term conservation and management of the grassland. English Heritage, working with the Museum and Bromley Council, now aims to increase the plant diversity back to that found by Darwin in 1856. The survey results will also enable future study of how the historic site has developed over time.
'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. 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.'
Darwin's home, gardens and meadows are owned by English Heritage, which is working with Bromley Council on the Government's case for Down House and the surrounding 10km2 of countryside to achieve World Heritage Site status. By receiving this title, Down House would join 27 other UK World Heritage Sites, including the Tower of London, Kew Gardens and Stonehenge. It would also be the first site to be recognised for its importance to the history of science.
'This survey and the experiments replicated around the grounds are what makes Down House and the surrounding countryside so exciting,' said Toby Beasley, Head Gardener at Down House. 'A lot of Darwin's groundbreaking work revolved around simple experiments and detailed observations in his garden and meadows. 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.'
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