Wildlife Garden panorama with a pond visible and the Museum building in the background

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Twenty-five years of wildlife discoveries in the Museum garden

Since we created the Museum's Wildlife Garden in 1995, we've been monitoring the plants and animals present and recording our observations. We've found around 3,300 species.

Wildlife Garden ecologist Sylvia Myers introduces some of our favourite finds and the monitoring techniques we use.

As well as watching wildlife being immensely enjoyable, observations can contribute to scientific studies. Long-term recording can help track the effects of climate change, provide information on the spread of wildlife disease and show how the populations of many familiar species such as house sparrows and hedgehogs are changing.

A special spot to observe urban nature

Thanks to the hard work of a team of volunteers and staff, the Wildlife Garden has flourished over the past 25 years.

In an area covering just one acre you can see examples of woodland, grassland, scrub, heath, fen, aquatic, reedbed, hedgerow and urban UK habitats.

Greyface Dartmoor sheep in the Museum Wildlife Garden

Greyface Dartmoor sheep have helped maintain the chalk downland and meadow areas of the Wildlife Garden since 1999, coming here to graze each autumn

The unique position and composition of our garden - a mosaic of various British habitats sited in central London next to a lot of wildlife experts - means that it has yielded many interesting discoveries over the years. These include some species new to Britain.

From our observations in the garden, we can also learn how different plants and animals will cope with the UK's increasing urbanisation.

Common frog on a patch of bare earth

A common frog in the Museum's Wildlife Garden. The decreasing popularity of garden ponds is a big problem for these frogs in the UK, which rely on them to breed, particularly in urban areas.

In the words of Max Barclay, one of our beetle experts:

'[The Wildlife Garden] is a useful barometer for locating newly imported species, as it includes a wide range of habitat types and it has a building full of experts right next to it!

'Urban green spaces like the Wildlife Garden are extremely valuable for native species too, and they allow us to see what proportion of the native fauna is able to survive in highly modified patches of habitat separated from the wider countryside.

'Ultimately, those places will continue to exist while broader natural environments may not always be there - so species that can thrive in the urban landscape are those best able to survive human modification of the environment.'

Bee orchids

Bee orchids in the Museum's Wildlife Garden. These orchids thrive on disturbed ground and can pop up in lawns, road verges and even waste ground in towns.

Our wildlife records

We use a variety of methods to observe wildlife in the garden, but to ensure each of our records is of scientific value, we always include the following details:

  • What was observed, being as specific as possible
  • When
  • Where
  • Who made the observation

Sometimes we also include extra information such as an animal's gender or how many individuals we saw of a particular species. 

The Wildlife Garden opened to the public for the first time on 10 July 1995. In that first year, 384 records were made. Twenty-five years later we are almost at 50,000 records, making the garden one of the most closely monitored urban spaces in the UK.

The records include insects and other animals, plants, fungi and microbial life. Basically, anything that has been seen alive in the garden - around 3,300 species.

Observations overview

Top five recorded animal groups:

  1. Birds: over 9,800 records of 66 species
  2. Moths and butterflies: over 5,800 records of 602 species
  3. Spiders: over 1,400 records of 128 species
  4. Beetles: over 1,300 records of 381 species
  5. True flies: over 800 records of 276 species

The most-recorded species were all birds: blackbirds (Turdus merula), robins (Erithacus rubecula) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus).

The three most-recorded invertebrate species were the azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella), light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana) and common shiny woodlouse (Oniscus asellus). One of the most frequently recorded spiders was the pretty candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha ovata).

Other than birds and invertebrates, the most commonly seen animals were, unsurprisingly, grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), red foxes (Vulpes Vulpes) and common frogs (Rana temporaria).

Our top five finds

1. The inconspicuous ladybird Rhyzobius forestieri.  Max Barclay, Senior Curator in Charge of Coleoptera (beetles), spotted it. He says, 'My feeling on seeing it was rather like the classic James Bond line "I've been expecting you" because it has been slowly spreading across Europe and it was only a matter of time until it got here. That doesn't diminish the excitement of finding something in Britain for the first time, though!'

Black, hairy ladybird

The ladybird Rhyzobius forestieri

2. The tiny earthworm Dendrobaena pygmea. Emma Sherlock, Senior Curator of Free-living Worms and Porifera, was excited to find this species in a log in the Wildlife Garden in 2015. Prior to this, it was thought to be extinct in Britain having not been seen for 32 years!

3. The spider Cryptachaea blattea. Tom Thomas, a volunteer spider recorder, prizes his sightings in the Wildlife Garden. These spiders had been recorded in the Isle of Wight in 2001 and Tom wondered when they would make it to London. The answer? 2015. Tom describes them as 'rather fine-looking spiders with round bodies bearing a single distinct tubercle [a bump at the back of their body]'.

4. The large, distinctive woodlouse Porcellio laevis. It has been recorded in the garden and is on the sightings wishlist of Curator Duncan Sivell. The species sadly seems to be declining in Britain, possibly due to changes in farming practices.

5. The shelled slug Testacella scutulum - Sylvia's personal favourite. She says, 'Having only worked at the Museum for a fortnight, I found this unusual carnivorous beast under a concrete slab. It was a first for the garden and neither mollusc curator had seen one live before. Its underground habits make it an unusual find.'

Pale brown slug in a tube

The shelled slug Testacella scutulum

How we monitor wildlife in the Museum garden

So, how did our scientists and volunteers make these and other fascinating finds? We use a range of techniques to observe wildlife in the garden and monitor changes over time:

Phenology

Phenology is the study of seasonal change. It can give important data about how species adapt to climate change and weather.

We are tracking events such as first flowering, budburst and first fruit of particular plants in specific places in the garden. Like any scientific experiment, keeping as many variables the same as possible is key.

Transects and fixed points

For some groups, such as birds and butterflies, we walk a set route around the grounds and count what we see within a set distance from our route. We walk at a similar pace each time.

For dragonflies and damselflies, we pick fixed points around our ponds and watch for fixed periods of time.

For both surveys we divide the areas into habitat types and only record the maximum number of each species we see in each habitat type to avoid double counting.

Blackbird on a path with plane tree seeds in its beak

Blackbirds are the most-recorded species in the Wildlife Garden, followed by robins

Traps

For more elusive animals we need to set traps, but most don't harm the animals.

We use camera traps to see hidden behaviour of birds and mammals, light traps to get a closer look at nocturnal insects and footprint traps to collect mammal tracks.

We use malaise traps (mesh tents) to capture flying insects and pitfall traps (cups set into the ground) to catch soil invertebrates.

Museum entomologist Martin Honey, now retired, discusses moth trapping in the Wildlife Garden
 

New techniques: eDNA and acoustic

Organisms leave traces of DNA behind wherever they have been present - this is known as environmental DNA (eDNA). We are taking samples of soil, water, air and alcohol from malaise and pit-fall traps to try to build a picture of what has passed through those different environments.

We will soon begin acoustic monitoring to try to record data from soundscapes, exploring how the amount and diversity of sounds from wildlife in different habitats change in relation to temperature, time of day and human-related noise levels, among other things. We will gain new insights into the levels of biological activity in the garden over time - our other methods only ever give a snapshot. 

Biodiversity officer Sam Thomas shows us how he is studying the Museum's Wildlife Garden to learn more about the animals and plants that live there
 

Bioblitzes

A BioBlitz is a race against time to create a snapshot of the variety of life found in a specific location, within a set amount of time. Wildlife experts and the wider public work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals and fungi as possible.

We run BioBlitzes throughout the year in the Wildlife Garden, trying to collect as many records as we can in one day. These days are a great way to enthuse people about the UK's biodiversity and give them a taste of the recording process. For some BioBlitzes we focus on absolute beginners, for others we invite people who are already involved in recording.

Plants and habitats

Every other year, we try to inventory all the plants in each of the habitats in the Wildlife Garden. We also check vegetation height and the proportions of different ground covers. This tells us how well our habitats match what we intend them to be and shapes our management of the garden.

Museum botanist Fred Rumsey introduces some of the spring blooms in the Museum's Wildlife Garden, filmed in 2012
 

Casual sightings

Our surveys can only ever capture some of the wildlife that visits the garden so we try to record as much as we can when we are exploring the garden.

We are also exceptionally lucky here to have a museum full of national experts who might wander out from time to time and collect in their lunch break or pick up a few specimens for a research project they are undertaking.

An exciting and important future for the Wildlife Garden

As part of the Urban Nature Project, the Museum's five-acre outdoor space will be transformed into a fully accessible green space in the heart of London that promotes urban wildlife research, conservation and awareness.

The gardens will be somewhere visitors can learn more about the incredible diversity of life on Earth and humanity's impact.

The Wildlife Garden forms an integral part of this. It will continue to be a space where visitors can learn more about UK nature, where our volunteers can learn urban nature identification and field survey skills and our scientists can develop best practices to protect urban nature for the future.

Existing habitats within the Wildlife Garden will be maintained and some expanded, giving visitors even more opportunities to discover the extraordinary wildlife that is right on our doorstep.

Find out more about the plans >