Sowing the Seeds of UK Biodiversity

Field growing plants for seedMain, permanent seed production site for the UK Native Hub

Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank launches UK Native Seed Hub.

On 17 August 2011, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew launches the UK Native Seed Hub at the Millennium Seed Bank, Wakehurst Place – an initiative that draws on the Millennium Seed Bank’s extensive collection of UK native seeds, as well as its horticultural and scientific expertise to support the UK seed industry, conservation groups and other organisations working to restore native plants to the UK countryside. The UK Native Seed Hub will eventually support restoration efforts across the full spectrum of UK habitats, but will focus initially on plants of lowland meadows or semi-natural grassland.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, with a gift of £750,000 as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, the money will establish the project over four years. The UK Native Seed Hub will comprise a dedicated seed store, and approximately one hectare of seed production beds, which are currently being developed. For the first year, interim seed production beds, open to the public until the end of September, have been set up in the walled nursery at Wakehurst Place.

For images of the UK native Seed Hub please click here.

These are home to 10 native species, such as the cuckoo flower (Cardamine atensis) and devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), both of which have been difficult to cultivate for seed production in the past. Visitors will also be able to experience a newly restored lowland meadow around the Millennium Seed Bank building.

Grasslands like these are a precious but vanishing habitat. Fragments survive in areas that have not been ploughed, re-seeded or heavily fertilized. They contain a diverse range of plants which in turn support a variety of insects, birds and other animals. Compared to the 1930s, only 2% of species-rich grasslands remain and the potential for restoring these attractive habitats is immense.

Working alongside commercial companies and restoration practitioners, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank experts will create high quality seed stocks of selected UK species, stored to international standards to maintain viability and genetic integrity. Samples from these stocks will then be made available to commercial seed companies for bulking up for use by conservation organisations in landscape-scale restoration projects. In the event that land management changes alone cannot achieve natural regeneration of the plant community, seed can be highly effective for increasing the species diversity in a restoration project.

Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank will also continue to work with conservation agencies to safeguard the UK’s most threatened plants. Conservation collections will be held in long term storage, but seeds and plants will also be raised to support the re-introduction of these species to suitable sites.

The UK Native Seed Hub will include scientific research and development studies to strengthen the quality and diversity of UK native seeds and plants available for restoration, thus playing an important role in addressing the UK Government’s commitment to protecting biodiversity and improving the UK’s ecological network. Knowledge and information generated by the UK Native Seed Hub project will be shared freely and training will be provided to landowners and agencies wishing to grow and use native plants.

The project will start with lowland meadow species and restoration work will be carried out in partnership with The High Weald Landscape Trust’s Weald Meadows Initiative, based in West Sussex. These include:

  • dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria)
  • harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
  • pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)
  • green field-speedwell (Veronica agrestis)
  • bugle (Ajuga reptans)
  • sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica)
  • ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi)
  • purple betony (Betonica officinalis)
  • birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
  • oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
  • common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
  • flatweed (Hypochaeris radicata)
  • cowslip (Primula veris)
  • devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis)
  • saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria)
  • autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis)
  • cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis)
  • common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

The model established for lowland meadows will provide a blueprint for supporting restoration in another 40 priority habitats listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the UK Government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The UK Native Seed Hub also addresses concerns outlined in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper and responds to the challenge of the Lawton review, ‘Making Space for Nature’ (2010).

The success of the UK Native Seed Hub depends on partnership with landowners, commercial wildflower seed producers and conservation bodies across the UK. The model of the UK Native Seed Hub is inspired by the approach of many of the international partners involved in the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (the international conservation project founded and led by Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank).

Professor Stephen Hopper, Director (CEO and Chief Scientist), Kew says, “As the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership moves forward into its next decade, environmental challenges are becoming ever more acute. Not only is it now more critical than ever that seeds are stored in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, but it is also essential that we use the collection and our expertise to assist the restoration of lost habitats and the reintroduction of lost species to provide a better environment for future generations. The UK Native Seed Hub is a significant first step on this road.

Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, says, “When I visited the new Native Seed Hub I saw Kew’s vision to capture this precious genetic information for our children’s children."

In our recent Natural Environment White Paper we set out our plans to restore, protect and improve habitats. These state-of-the-art facilities show our commitment to keeping nature’s riches safe.

Adds Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, “Increasingly, as awareness has been raised of the importance of UK biodiversity, we have been responding to growing interest, and commercial demand, for native UK plants for restoration."

Having started to work with commercial seed companies and small conservation organisations, it became evident that the availability, suitability and quality of seed for reintroduction and recovery initiatives in the UK were somewhat limited. Commercial companies were often unable to provide seeds genetically adapted to the intended site of restoration, and local conservation organisations had insufficient financial clout and technical back-up to influence the market to provide the right kind of seed."

Therefore, it made complete sense for us to look at how Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank could help, and the UK Native Seed Hub project was born."

Use of appropriate native plants will help landowners create diverse habitats, which will ultimately provide a healthier landscape for us all.

Iain Parkinson, Kew’s Conservation and Woodlands Manager at Wakehurst Place, says, “We have been managing our own species-rich grasslands under the framework of Environmental Stewardship – the Government’s principal scheme for increasing biodiversity. The UK Native Seed Hub will help to deliver these objectives and in doing so protect and enhance some of the UK’s most vulnerable habitats.

Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, says, “Having worked with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, over the past 10 years to preserve the seeds of the world’s wild plants, we are delighted to support the launch of the UK Native Seed Hub as part of our fiftieth birthday celebrations."

By working with commercial organisations and conservation groups this project will ensure the protection of some of the UK’s most threatened species and restore some of our most beautiful meadowlands. By increasing the diversity of our countryside the Hub will support endangered wildlife and provide a rich environment for people across the country to enjoy.

Giles Laverack, Managing Director of Scotia Seeds, based in Brechin, Scotland, says, “The UK Native Seed Hub brings the resources of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank to an emerging area of conservation and biodiversity. Kew’s expertise in seed science and seed quality and in plant conservation is a fantastic resource which is really unparalleled."

The UK Native Seed Hub will bring an authoritative voice to the supply and use of native seeds which will be a great help to the industry and will allow us to move on to a new level. It’s a very timely initiative and very welcome.

The aims of the UK Native Seed Hub are:

  • To increase the quality, quantity and diversity of UK native plants and seeds available to conservation organisations and others involved in habitat restoration projects to enhance UK biodiversity
  • To support UK Native seed producers and conservation agencies through the provision of high quality seed stocks, information and advice
  • To develop research into improved nursery and plant production techniques for UK native plants

On a small scale, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank has already shown how critical its UK seed collections are to the reintroduction and recovery of threatened species such as the triangular club rush (Schoenoplectus triqueter), which until last year was extinct in all but one of its former sites on the River Tamar in Devon, and the critically endangered starved wood sedge (Carex depauperata), reintroduced to a newly-coppiced woodland on the Charterhouse Estate near Godalming, Surrey, also last year). Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank safeguards around 90% of UK species in its vaults – almost all of the native flora.

 
 

Article posted on 18 Aug 2011.