A wren searching for insects amongst the seed heads of wild angelica with blackbirds and robins singing nearby, a moorhen family feeding on a pond, great tits and blue tits singing in the tree canopy and sheep grazing contentedly in the meadow… it’s hard to believe I had just crossed the busy Cromwell Road seconds ago and was now starting the day at my place of work, the Museum’s Wildlife Garden.
Actually the constant hum of the nearby traffic becomes insignificant in this setting behind the screen of plane trees in the Museum grounds, for many years with its entrance hidden away at the end of the West Lawn, but now made more accessible via a new entrance outside the Darwin Centre of the Museum’s Orange Zone.
This Wildlife Garden – the Museum’s first living, permanent exhibition and the inspiration of Museum botanist Clive Jermy - opened in 1995 following five years of planning, landscaping and planting. It was designed to illustrate a range of semi-natural habitats found in lowland Britain such as chalk downland, meadow, woodland, hedgerows, heathland and fen and ponds.
From the start the main aims of the garden were to:
… illustrate the potential for habitat creation and wildlife conservation in the inner city; to provide an educational resource for visitors to the Museum; to promote an understanding of lowland Britain’s flora and fauna; and to provide a resource for naturalists and students to undertake species recording and ecological monitoring work.
It has since also become an area for peace and contemplation where visitors and staff can quietly observe wildlife in the city.
Near the garden’s entrance wild marjoram, salad burnet and lady’s bedstraw are among 70 or so plant species that illustrate chalk downland; that is until the sheep came in August to graze the fading flowers and grasses.
Sheep can be seen grazing our meadows in late summer to autumn
Heather, gorse and bristle bent make up the heathland – recently restored with a grant from Western Riverside Environmental Fund
The paths meander through the garden habitats. Hints of fen wetland with iris, ragged robin, marsh fern and sedges may be seen close to the pond and reedbed. Woodland areas include oak, silver birch, field maple, hornbeam and holly. Primroses, bluebells, greater stitchwort, red campion and wood millet are just some of the plants that create a woodland floor in spring with crab apple and wild cherry provide blossom in the canopy.
Bluebells earlier this year
In late summer, the woodland areas are darker, with different shades of green and hints of autumn – dog’s mercury, enchanter’s night-shade and the occasional pink of red campion. Blue tits and long-tailed tits are commonly seen flying in the canopy of silver birch and oak, searching for late caterpillars, bugs and other insects – while jays are busily gathering acorns and hazelnuts. Blackbirds toss and turn leaf-litter and other debris while robins follow us around in hope of a few worms or insects turned up by our work.
Countryside management techniques are practiced on a small scale in the care of this living exhibition. Hazel is coppiced and woven into stock-proof fencing. Grassland is grazed. Hedges are laid.
Newly laid hedge
Since the garden opened over 2,300 species of plants and animals have been recorded and there are many more to discover. Perhaps you can help us? This weekend we will be hosting our Hedgerow Harvest event where you and your family can take watch a professional hedge layer at work, meet hedgehogs and take part in pond dipping, soil surveys and more.
From March to October we regularly hold special events to encourage our visitors to discover what could be in their own garden and the joys of the British countryside, so keep an eye on our website for upcoming events.
We hope to see you here, but if you can’t make it to the Museum, you can find out what we’re doing by reading our new blog. Together with fellow wildlife gardeners, I’ll be sharing some of our observations through the seasons and providing snapshots of our working day with seasonal updates and stories about some of the plants, insects and animals that fill the Museum’s living and working collection.