What is biodiversity loss and how can you combat it?
Museums and galleries can help to increase biodiversity by engaging and educating visitors as well as making their site more wildlife friendly.
What is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the variety of all living things – plants, animals and fungi. Global biodiversity decline has been estimated at a 68% decrease in mammals, birds, reptiles amphibians and fish globally. Biodiversity in the UK has seen a significant decrease in recent decades with 41% of species having declined since the 1970s. The UK has the lowest remaining levels of biodiversity of the G7 countries and is in the lowest 10% globally.
Biodiversity loss has been caused by a range of interlinked factors.
- Habitat loss – destruction of natural habitats, fragmentation of ecosystems reducing or stopping the movement of species. Conversion of natural habitats into those solely for human use – urban environments and mis-managed agriculture.
- Invasive species – the introduction of new species which upset the natural balance of the ecosystem. Well known examples include the grey squirrel and rhododendron.
- Overexploitation: when an animal, plant or fungi is over hunted or harvested it can reduce populations to a point where they struggle to recover. This happens both on land and sea with overfishing of cod being a prime example of species having undergone dramatic decline in the UK.
- Pollution: Pollution, including chemical spills, nutrient run off from agriculture, pesticide use and air pollution, can have immediate and long-term negative impacts on the environment and species in it.
- Climate change: As the climate changes rapidly it alters the ecosystems which species have evolved to thrive in. Shifting seasonal patterns, changing temperatures and extreme weather events can all throw off breeding patterns, seasonal camouflage and availability of food for wildlife.
The culture and heritage sector can take action to support biodiversity. Creating spaces for nature at heritage sites and engaging visitors with nature can have a real impact. Organisations can help reverse the decline of nature by planting bee friendly flowers, planting trees, hosting environment-based exhibits and much more. These actions can add up to create a significant benefit for local species.
Biodiversity helps everyone
Improving the biodiversity of your site and engaging visitors with activities can have multiple benefits to your organisation and visitors, as well as the planet.
Recent studies have show that spending time in nature, and taking positive action against the climate emergency, can support good mental health. Biodiversity activities and events can attract new visitors to museums and galleries as well as introducing the regulars to new topics. Creating wildlife gardens and building planters can also attract new volunteers, who previously may not have felt there was a place for them in museums.
Creating green spaces and engaging visitors with nature can also have a positive impact on your reputation as an organisation. The Act Green research by Indigo shows that visitors increasingly see museums as having a role to play in tackling the climate and nature crises.
As climate change and the loss of biodiversity becomes a more urgent issue, being proactive on the topic helps to place museums as centres of engagement, action and learning on the issue. This promotes the museum, raises its profile, and widens the audience the organisation can reach.
There are simple, low-costs steps museums can take now to reduce biodiversity loss
Wildflower meadows provide a diverse and attractive habitat for wildlife. Agricultural policy and practice have reduced wildflower diversity in the UK. Practices like increased field drainage, herbicide use, and the increasing urban sprawl, have all contributed to this reduction.
You don’t need lots of outdoor land to plant wildflowers. Planting in window boxes or planters also helps contribute to local biodiversity creating an urban greenspace. Changing areas of mown lawns to grass meadows, or reducing how often you cut the grass are also help ways to increase biodiversity. Experiment with campaigns like “No Mow May” to get a feel for how to change your landscaping to be more wildlife friendly.
While planting wildflowers helps the environment, creating greenspace also helps people too. A garden or planting area can help build connections with your local community, provide education opportunities for young people, or help others improve their mental wellbeing by engaging with nature.
These guides can help you get started:
Reduce or stop use of pesticides
Pesticides are chemical substances designed to be toxic to organisms. They affect plants’ growth such as fungi, insects or weeds. They kill many wildlife species including mammals, earthworms, and bees. Pesticide use can have immediate toxic effects on directly exposed organisms, and long-term effects can result from changes to habitats and the food chain.
If your you’re looking at more environmentally friendly ways to manage your green spaces, some useful resources are:
Build animal homes
Providing a physical structure for animals and insects to use as shelter is a great activity to get people involved with and created a sanctuary for local species. This activity requires little space and resources. Structures can be made from a range of natural materials such as sticks, dried leaves, pinecones, bark, grass etc. Or other materials such as timber, bricks and stones. The size and complexity of the structure can fit with whatever space, resources, and capacity you have. “Bug Hotels” create places to hide from predators, raise young, and live. They’re suitable for invertebrates like insects, smaller mammals, and amphibians. Bird, hedgehog, and bat boxes are also a fantastic way to support local wildlife if you have the space.
Ideas for what to build include:
Plant hedges or trees
Hedges and trees create cover for birds, small mammals and invertebrates as well as producing oxygen and pulling carbon dioxide from the air. Large plants have a key role to play in helping to increase, stabilise and support biodiversity. Trees and hedgerows can have a direct impact on carbon emissions. They also can help to create habitats for many species to thrive.
Be aware when planting trees and hedgerows that native species are planted which will help the local environment. The trees and hedges planted must have attributes that help biodiversity in the area and not degrade the environment or outcompete other organisms. It is also important to consider how these plants will grow over a long period of time. Tree roots have the potential to damage building foundations if planted too close to a structure.
Further information and guidance can be found at:
Hold a biodiversity event or exhibition
Hold a biodiversity event or exhibition
If you don’t have the grounds, space or the resources for these actions you can still engage the public on the issue. Museums can inspire people to go and take action themselves.
Holding nature days, whether a whole day or a couple of hours for a nature café, brings people together and can introduce them to different objects in the collection or local speakers. Exploring historic records can counter shifting baseline syndrome.
Making use of your local area and natural environment, including its heritage and culture, builds connections with the local community. You can extend beyond the museum and use local rivers, coastlines, fields, woods, and even urban wildlife to demonstrate biodiversity and invite new meaning and value to these community spaces.
Examples of biodiversity-based activities and engagement museums include:
Case Study: The Stirling Smith Art and Museum
The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum is a place where everyone is welcome. The building has played a very special part in the history of Stirling since its founding in 1874. Established by the bequest of artist Thomas Stuart Smith (1815-1869), it was built on land supplied by the Burgh of Stirling. Today, The Smith functions as a gallery, museum and cultural centre for the Stirling area. In addition to serving as a repository of historic artefacts and paintings of Stirlingshire, it also contains a biodiversity garden, known as Ailie’s Garden.
Ailie’s Garden (named after local activist Ailie R Maclaurin, 1913-2000) is a half-acre site within the two-acre museum grounds. It was designed as a biodiversity garden where only native species would be planted and sourced locally. For example, an apple tree in the garden came from Stirling Castle’s apple trees. The grounds maintain a large composting area and wormery which the museum uses as part of its green initiative. Additionally, the art and objects within the garden are all created of natural materials that will not cause any harm to the animal and plant life that resides there.
The garden was funded by The Friends of The Smith to improve the exterior of the museum and developed into a major new outdoor facility. It was created with the intention to cultivate visitors’ interest of the natural environment, whilst providing wildlife a sanctuary in the city. The Friends remain the loyal caretakers of the garden, and it is maintained by a passionate group of volunteers who tend to it every week.