Interview - Professor Stephen Blackmore, Regius keeper, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Regius Keeper at Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) Edinburgh, Professor Stephen Blackmore CBE says communication with the Scottish Government is key to safeguarding the garden for future generations. Meanwhile, he believes that ongoing drives to boost recruitment and training are critical to the success of the industry as a whole.

Professor Stephen Blackmore, Regius keeper, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh - image: RBG Edinburgh
Professor Stephen Blackmore, Regius keeper, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh - image: RBG Edinburgh

Blackmore, who last year was appointed her majesty's botanist in Scotland, spent 20 years working at the Natural History Museum in London before taking up his role in Edinburgh.

He says: "The one downside at the museum was that it didn't have any living specimens so I would have to go to the Chelsea Physic Garden or RBG Kew. But at Edinburgh we have the whole package of plant diversity from the herbarium collections to the garden, and I think my colleagues have been quite good at educating me on horticulture."

On education at the garden, he says he is proud of the variety of courses on offer which are attended by up to 100 students at any given time. "Students who have studied horticulture anywhere in the UK can enter any of the different years and that's proving to be quite popular," says Blackmore.

However, the one challenge facing Blackmore and his colleagues is maintaining recruitment and career development. "It's tough at the moment and we have a number of gapped posts. We have to look really carefully at the ways we can attract people," he explains.

"I'd like to bring in a group of young people at the beginning of their career so they can work their way through. Continuity is important in a botanic garden because a lot is learnt on the job. We want to get a good flow and that's one of my concerns at present."

He hopes to establish an apprenticeship scheme in the future. "For some people working in a garden is actually the right place for them and nowhere else would quite fit them," he says.

"I feel that horticulture skills can be seriously undervalued, especially in terms of plant conservation. We have fantastic people here who really can grow amazing plants from around the world, and I always describe that as being as important as the plants themselves," he adds.

Blackmore was involved in devising the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation through his involvement in the International Partnership for Plant Conservation and believes there is still a lot of work to do to ensure continued support for plant conservation work.

He says: "At some point relatively soon the penny needs to drop that we won't see a response to the problem unless resource levels of funding start to come to plant conservation at an international level. In terms of the level of funding the world has spent, it's as if plants don't really matter."

RBG Edinburgh recently received an unexpected funding increase from the Scottish Government for the coming year. Blackmore says this offers an opportunity to focus on two things - ensuring continued financial support for the future and working to make savings by making operations more efficient.

Because there is no entrance price at the Edinburgh site - admission is charged at the external sites at Benmore in Argyll, Dawyck in the Borders and Logan in Dumfries and Galloway - maintaining commercial revenue to the garden is a constant priority.

Blackmore says the garden has turned this to a positive: "The fact that we don't charge admission makes it very important for us to have attractive cafes and restaurants and all of that side of catering and refreshments is a good source of revenue for us.

"We have also become a really popular venue for weddings through a partnership with Prestige Scotland. By making sure that the areas of the buildings and parts of the garden they use are in really good shape, we have been able to make the garden an increasingly popular attraction for ceremonies and corporate events."

He is keen to renovate a 200-seat lecture theatre so it can be rented out and further boost commercial revenue. He says: "I'd love to bring the standard up - it's a beautiful space and it just needs new seats and audiovisual equipment. That type of investment is the sort of thing that has return for us."

On continued support for botanic gardens, he believes better communication with Government bodies is essential to ensure they know what work is being carried out. And in many ways the garden has fared particularly well from devolution, he says.

"The existence of the Scottish Parliament has been a good thing for the botanic garden because we have people on the doorstep looking closely at what we do. It brings, let's say, a better local understanding of what Scottish institutions are doing and what they are delivering to Scotland," says Blackmore.

"We work hard on communicating what we do to the politicians of many parties. From our perspective the important thing is that we will work with whoever is in government."

CV

1976-77: Botanist/administrator, Royal Society's Aldabra Research Station, Seychelles

1977-80: Head of national herbarium and botanic garden, University of Malawi

1980-90: Head of palynology, Natural History Museum

1990-99: Keeper of botany then associate director of life sciences, Natural History Museum

1999 to date: Regius keeper, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

2010: Appointed her majesty's botanist in Scotland

2010: Appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire


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