International Day for Biological Diversity 2021

Kew’s wild botanic garden Wakehurst to become a ‘living laboratory’ exploring benefits of biodiverse British landscapes through new Landscape Ecology Programme.

Release date: 21 May 2021

  • New Landscape Ecology Programme (LEP) exploring the value of UK biodiversity launches at Wakehurst
  • Kew scientists will apply their expertise across four research pillars: carbon, pollination, hydrology (the study of water in the environment), and human wellbeing to inform nature-based solutions to critical challenges such as climate change, mental health, and food security
  • Research will generate critical evidence for government policymakers, conservation bodies, and private landowners to redefine approaches to land management

Celebrating the UN’s theme for International Day for Biological Diversity 2021, 'We’re part of the solution', RBG Kew today launches its Landscape Ecology Programme, an exciting new science research project based at its wild botanic garden Wakehurst in Sussex. The work seeks to generate evidence that will enable diverse landscapes and ecosystems to be used across the UK to develop nature-based solutions to some of the critical challenges facing society, from large-scale natural disasters to health and wellbeing. With the UK government driving significant changes to environmental land management policy, evidence for the vital role of biodiversity is urgently needed to ensure the best possible landscape investments are made for the country.

Following the Dasgupta Review on the value of biodiversity, Wakehurst will transform into a unique ‘living laboratory’, a prime site for Kew scientists to undertake extensive research in a range of species-rich habitats. As a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Wakehurst boasts a rich and diverse landscape of native and exotic woodlands, wetlands, species-rich grasslands, designed landscapes and ornamental gardens, leading best practice in sustainable land management. Spanning over 500 acres, and just an hour by train from central London, Wakehurst’s vast living collection of rare and endangered plants in the Sussex High Weald is uniquely equipped to facilitate science in action.

Jointly developed by Wakehurst and Kew’s science teams, the LEP’s four research pillars each pose key questions to better understand the services and benefits nature provides (see notes for further details):

1. Hydrology: Which species of tree could help reduce the impact of flooding? 

2.1. Pollinators (i): Could growing certain flowers boost numbers of vital bee species?

2.2. Pollinators (ii): Are hoverflies and wasps just as powerful as pesticides in maintaining crop health?

3. Carbon: How do plants and fungi work together to sequester carbon?

4. Wellbeing: Could diversifying our surroundings make us happier and healthier humans?

Professor Alex Antonelli, Director of Science at RBG Kew says: “This is groundbreaking research that will inform new approaches to landscape management in the UK and beyond. This truly interdisciplinary approach to evaluating the importance of biodiversity in the UK is at the heart of RBG Kew’s recently launched strategic approach to science for the next ten years.  We hope the findings will lead to better decisions for nature in the longer term. With the planet at a crossroads, ignoring the impact of biodiversity loss is simply not an option.”

Ed Ikin, Deputy Director and Head of Landscape, Horticulture & Research at Wakehurst says: “Centuries of human stewardship have made the landscape at Wakehurst productive and biodiverse. Our Landscape Ecology Programme is driven by our curiosity about this landscape and the benefits we derive from it. We want to find out how plants, soil, the atmosphere and fungi interact with each other to store carbon, how many species of invertebrate our landscape supports, and what services, from pollination to pest control, they offer us. Kew has invested over 50 years of thoughtful management into Wakehurst, generating rich scientific evidence from this landscape is a valuable, vital return on that investment.”

Tony Sweeney, Director of Wakehurst says: “Wakehurst’s rich, immersive High Wealden landscape has long been a hub of plant and horticultural innovation, learning and inspiring public engagement in nature. We now intend to build strongly on our long commitment to botanic and conservational work at the world-renowned Millennium Seed Bank, and in the landscape’s meadows, woodlands and nature reserves. The vital task is to research evidence for new nature-based solutions to the twin threats of biodiversity loss and climate change, and their dramatic impact on human prosperity and wellbeing.”

What’s next?

Over the next year, Kew scientists will investigate these important questions, harvesting critical data and formulating ideas for nature-based solutions, with a view to sharing their key findings for International Day for Biological Diversity 2022. Visitors to Wakehurst may encounter signs of their research as they roam the landscape – from bee identification gear to high-tech sensors, and as the Landscape Ecology Programme grows, Wakehurst and its lead scientists will develop opportunities for the public to be part of this flagship research project.


For more information, high-res images, or to request an interview with any of the scientists please contact Frances Teehan, Strategic Communications Manager at Wakehurst, on

Notes for editors

The four research pillars in detail

1. Hydrology: Which species of tree could help reduce the impact of flooding? 

In 2020, the UK government committed £3.9 million in new funding to tree planting initiatives, designed in part to combat the climate crisis by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Research Fellow Dr Mark Lee’s hydrology research stream seeks to optimise these types of tree planting schemes, exploring which particular tree species could offer further benefits, in particular alleviating the impact of flooding. As extreme weather conditions become an increasingly regular phenomenon experienced worldwide due to climate change, the potential benefits of identifying species which can tackle natural disasters are invaluable. Wakehurst’s national and exotic tree collections offer the chance to measure responses to various weather scenarios in detail. Installing environmental sensors across Wakehurst’s diverse landscape, Lee will gather high quality data every few minutes. Measuring soil moisture and temperature, amongst many other factors, the sensors will illustrate how soil in broad-leaved woodland, evergreen woodland and grassland sites responds to rain, offering live data on which species of trees prove most effective at soaking up water.

2.1. Pollinators (i): Could growing certain flowers boost numbers of vital bee species?

Species-rich meadows provide a critically important habitat for different bee species, but with many converted into crop monocultures or intensively grazed grassland, critical pollinator species which were once abundant are now rare. Through extensive surveys and supported by a grant from Ground Control Ltd, Dr Hauke Koch, Ann Sowerby Fellow in Pollinator Health, will compare pollinator and plant communities in Wakehurst with a range of sites in Sussex’s High Weald area, from the beautiful range of meadows at the botanic garden itself, to those located in or near urban areas such as roadside verges, and the Burgess Hill meadow which served as a ‘donor’ for Wakehurst’s Coronation Meadow. Combining this bee identification work with a floral survey documenting the plants on which bees are found, Koch seeks to establish the species of flora which would not only support, but boost bee species. With this extensive data, concrete evidence will inform planting schemes, which have the potential to transform ‘forgotten’ land such as patches of grass on roadsides or roundabouts, into valuable replacement habitats for bees.

2.2. Pollinators (ii): Are hoverflies and wasps just as powerful as pesticides in maintaining crop health? 

Whilst bees are now broadly recognised for their vital pollinating role, it is less known that they are hairy vegetarian wasps that adapted to using pollen and nectar as food. But these ancestors of bees remain largely unpopular and unappreciated. However, as key predators and parasites of other insects, especially crop pests, wasps alongside other pest eating insects such as hoverflies, are an incredible potential resource for farmers in pest management just as they are at Wakehurst, where they are employed in their greenhouses to control pests. Through his research, Professor Phil Stevenson will explore how biodiverse landscapes could increase populations of these essential predators and be an important component of sustainable farming solutions. By culturing aphids on bean plants and installing them as sentinels, Stevenson and his team seek to compare the levels of parasitism in various locations in Wakehurst and surrounding farmlands to demonstrate the positive impact of biodiverse surroundings on natural pest regulation.

3. Carbon: How do plants and fungi work together to sequester carbon?

Whilst the prominence of tree planting to capture carbon has risen in policy strategies, relatively little is known about how other habitats contribute to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, particularly networks of mycorrhizal fungi belowground. To ensure policy makers are planting with the greatest long-term benefits in mind for people, biodiversity and the environment, the carbon workstream, sponsored by Sky Zero and led by Dr Justin Moat, Senior Research Leader for Spatial Analysis will capture data from above and belowground to test which habitats will prove most resilient and beneficial in the face of the climate emergency. Using the latest technology including hyper-spectral and LiDAR drones and fixed wing drones with multiple and thermal cameras, Moat’s team, in collaboration with Research Leader in Fungal Ecology Dr Laura M Suz and her team Dr Jill Kowal and Professor Martin Bidartondo, will investigate how different parts of Wakehurst’s landscape contribute to carbon sequestration, studying the biomass, biodiversity, structure, and composition of each ecosystem. With this important data stored in one platform, the LEP will perform a critical role in the future of Britain’s landscapes, informing planting and restoration schemes across the country.

4. Wellbeing: Could diversifying our surroundings make us happier and healthier humans?

The final LEP research stream will explore how biodiverse landscapes directly benefit people and their wellbeing. It is well known that spending time in nature has been found to help with mental health problems including anxiety and depression, but further insight into what particular habitats and landscapes, or experiences in them, could prove to be invaluable when considering future land management schemes. The wellbeing stream will research responses and experiences of children and adults as they explore Wakehurst’s wild landscapes in order to evaluate changes in feelings of connectedness to nature. By exploring the nuanced differences between spending time in a landscape, engaging with nature within a landscape, or actively gaining knowledge about the landscape, the LEP hopes to build a detailed study on the various factors of a biodiverse landscape that impact positive mental health and wellbeing, generating evidence on how people form connections to nature.

Understanding the threat of climate change on key beneficial plants

Underpinning the LEP’s four research pillars is the Natural Asset and Risk Register. Crucial to achieving the ambitions of the LEP is a detailed account of the plants that shape Wakehurst’s rich landscape, providing a measure of how biodiverse Wakehurst currently is, and forming a baseline for researchers both within RBG Kew and beyond. A number of ‘cornerstone’ species will be identified – plants that underpin the ecology of Wakehurst. Dr Efisio Mattana, a Kew Research Fellow specialist in the effect of environmental stress on seed germination, will explore how these species may be impacted in future climate scenarios. Through detailed data modelling and seed germination tests, Mattana and collaborators seek to create a model to predict how plants may thrive or struggle in the face of the climate crisis. This groundbreaking research could determine if plants currently used in daily life for medicine, food and fuel, are at extreme risk.

About Wakehurst

Please note that Wakehurst is referred to just as Wakehurst, not Wakehurst Place. It is not a National Trust property. 

Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanic garden in Sussex is home to the Millennium Seed Bank and over 500 acres of the world’s plants including temperate woodlands, ornamental gardens and a nature reserve. It is situated in the High Weald of Sussex, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and focuses on wild plant collections. The Millennium Seed Bank houses and protects seed from the world’s most substantial and diverse collection of threatened and useful wild plants, making it the most biodiverse place on earth. 

RBG Kew receives just under half of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.  

In March 2021, RBG Kew launched its 10-year strategy Our Manifesto for Change 2021-2030 The institution’s ultimate goal is step up to help to end the extinction crisis and contribute to creating a world where nature is protected, valued by all and managed sustainably. In the wake of a global pandemic, and with the future of the planet in peril, the strategy represents a public commitment by RBG Kew to do everything in its power to reverse the environmental devastation of biodiversity loss and climate change.  The five key priorities are 1) Delivering science-based knowledge and solutions to protect biodiversity and use natural resources sustainably 2) Inspiring people to protect the natural world 3) Training the next generation of experts: 4) Extending our reach 5) Influencing national and international opinion and policy: On May 25th RBG Kew will also be launching its new Sustainability Strategy – committing to become Climate Positive by 2030 and marking a step-change in our urgent action to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis.

About Sky Zero

  • In February 2020 Sky set its ambition to be net zero carbon by 2030, two decades ahead of government legislation. 
  • The Sky Zero strategy is across all three emissions scopes including those created by customers using Sky products in their own homes.
  • Sky will be making all its tech products more energy efficient and transforming its fleet of over 5,000 vehicles to zero emissions.
  • Sky is developing the world’s most sustainable film and TV studios and will make every Sky original production, TV channel and film net zero carbon by 2030.
  • Sky will also help its 11,000 suppliers on their path to net zero and will plant trees, mangroves, and seagrass to absorb any carbon that it cannot cut.
  • Sky is confirming its targets through the SBTi (Science-based Target Initiative) and will publicly report its carbon footprint.
  • Sky is a Principal Partner and Media Partner of COP26 the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference