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New ‘living laboratory’ launched by Kew Gardens to study biodiversity benefits in UK

Written by on 22 May 2021

Kew Gardens says its wild botanic garden in Wakehurst will become a “living laboratory”, beginning new research to explore the benefits of biodiverse British landscapes.

Scientists will assess the flora, fauna and woodlands at the botanic gardens in West Sussex, aiming to generate crucial evidence on what the future of Britain’s environment should look like, before sharing these findings with government policymakers, conservation groups, and landowners.

Ed Ikin, deputy director of Wakehurst, believes the National Trust’s 500-acre site is the ideal testing ground to gather crucial data, which can be used to inform solutions to challenges such as climate change, mental health, and food security.

Scientists are hoping to show the benefits of a biodiverse landscape Image: Scientists are hoping to show the benefits of a biodiverse landscape

Speaking on International Day for Biological Diversity, Mr Ikin said: “Centuries of human stewardship have made the landscape at Wakehurst productive and biodiverse,

“We know it’s a good landscape, but we now want to prove it. We want to use Kew scientists’ amazing research skills to provide evidence for why a biodiverse landscape like this matters.”

Among the pressing issues Mr Ikin and the hundreds of researchers will look to address is hydrology; looking at which species of tree could help reduce the impact of flooding which is becoming commonplace in Britain and across the world.

They will also be attempting to find out how plants, soil, the atmosphere, and fungi interact with each other to store carbon.

“The landscape has a role in absorbing carbon,” added Mr Ikin. “We know that planting trees is important for absorbing carbon, but we also think that really well-managed stable landscapes are good for locking carbon up, let’s create the full picture and let’s understand what’s going on above the ground, but also below the ground.”

Another aim of the living laboratory project is to help us reassess our relationship with insects, including wasps, the largely unpopular and underappreciated cousins of bees.

This will also include looking at how these predators can be used as potential resources for farmers in pest management.

Kew Gardens' Wakehurst location in West Sussex Image: Kew Gardens wants the project to inspire the public to get involved in preserving the natural landscapes around them

“It’s very hard to engage people in this sometimes because nobody likes wasps, you’re always swatting them around when you’re having your picnics in the summer,” said Dr Phil Stevenson, a senior research leader at Kew who is exploring how biodiverse landscapes could increase populations of predators.

“But in truth bees are just hairy vegetarian wasps, so we should learn to love wasps just as much as we love bees,” he added.

“They feed on pests of our crops and what I’m trying to do in my experiments is find out how Wakehurst and its natural landscape influences the abundance and the diversity of those beneficial insects by providing all the forage and the food.”

Beyond questions about flora, fauna and insects, the hope at Wakehurst among Mr Ikin and his team is that the living laboratory can help remind people who visit the site of how spending time in nature can help boost their wellbeing.

They want the project to inspire the public to get involved in preserving the natural landscapes around them.

“We want people to go home and think nature is important, nature actually benefits me, ‘what am I doing to do?'” Mr Ikin said.

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“Am I going to join a conservation organisation, am I going to get my local green in my town looking a little bit diverse, am I going to plant some flowers there?

“There’s so many different people we want to get engaged in the work that we’re doing here.”

Sky News has launched the first daily prime time news show dedicated to climate change.

The Daily Climate Show is broadcast at 6.30pm and 9.30pm Monday to Friday on Sky News, the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.

Hosted by Anna Jones, it follows Sky News correspondents as they investigate how global warming is changing our landscape and how we all live our lives.

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