Working to conserve the world's seeds

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is seeking funds to continue its ecological work. Miranda Kimberley reports.

The economic downturn is putting further pressure on conservation organisations such as the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which is seeking to secure long-term funding beyond 2010.

The facility at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex was opened in 2000, with 10 years of funding from the government-run Millennium Commission and sponsors. Now that first phase of funding is coming to an end, it needs £100m more to achieve the target of collecting 25 per cent of the world's species by 2020.

Head of the MSB fundraising campaign Jane Ibbunson, of the Kew Foundation, is having to take a new approach to raising money. "Because of the recession, corporate support is not the priority at the moment," she says. "We are looking more to trusts and foundations that have supported us in the past and we are also working with the MSB's partners around the world, looking at them to raise money in their own countries."

Ibbunson adds that the situation is not "doom and gloom" yet. "We have enough funds guaranteed to take the MSB forward over the next couple of years, but there is an urgent need to increase the programme.

"We don't want to send out a message of panic that the MSB will close. Raising the funding is a scaleable project. But we need to carry on the momentum and want more funders to come on board."

To keep the facility operational requires £45m but the Kew Foundation is aiming to raise £142m to continue "our work with 54 partners worldwide and to increase the numbers of countries we work in", says Ibbunson.

The MSB, where seeds are kept in stasis in a cold store at -20 degsC, has achieved great success over the past decade. It is on target to have collected 10 per cent of the world's flora by the end of 2009. Prime minister Gordon Brown was presented with the collection's billionth seed in 2007 and 96 per cent of the UK's native higher plants have already been banked.

Head of the MSB Dr Paul Smith says that while "the seed bank is not in danger of closing", it is crucial that funding is raised so its work can be expanded.

"It is urgent - 30 million hectares of forest are destroyed every year and up to four plant species a day are lost. Funding is in place to underwrite our current levels up to 2011 and beyond that, as we get a proportion of our funding (eight per cent) from the Government."

Smith adds that without further funding, the "work on existing species collected would continue". But the 25 per cent target would be difficult to meet and it is reported that the workforce at the Wakehurst Place facility could be reduced from 60 to just six.

As the world is experiencing climate change and rapid habitat loss, the work of seed banks is becoming more important. Their critics say they could become irrelevant - for example, if seed has been collected from a specific eco- system, such as a small island that is destroyed in the future by rising seas levels, what hope is there of re-establishing the plants? Restoring species to land that has been decimated by man, after deforestation, mining or pollution, for example, can also be difficult.

However, as Kew director Steve Hopper points out, restoration ecology is an exciting new science in which some academics are beginning to specialise.

Kew hosted a restoration ecology workshop in June 2008, attended by international delegates. A strategy is now being developed by Kew and other botanic gardens on how they can use their resources to reintroduce species. Seed from the MSB is already being used to restore tall grass prairies in the US; sand plain fynbos in South Africa and mined lands in Australia and Madagascar.

"It's an exciting next phase," says Hopper. "We decided to start using some of the capital in the MSB to help people. And the MSB is on target to have collected 10 per cent of the world's flora by the end of next year."

Hopper says the MSB is a crucial part of the Breathing Planet programme, which sets out seven key actions that Kew aims to achieve to reduce the extent and impact of climate change.

As well as the programme's objective to "safeguard 25 per cent of species through the MSB partnership", it also highlights other projects Kew is undertaking, such as increasing global access to its collections by creating web-based floras of scanned herbarium specimens, and helping conservation programmes in the field (a vegetation atlas of Madagascar was published this year by Kew and partners, and strategic decisions can now be made using maps created with satellite imagery).

"It's an over-arching vision for the next 10 years," says Hopper. "It will be used to publicise the work that is being done and to look for new streams of funding in these difficult times."

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has itself been hit by funding issues in the past few years. Defra, which funds 50 per cent of its budget, cut £1.5m of the operational budget over two years, which Hopper says "had an impact and led to a tightening of belts".

But he remains positive as the gardens will celebrate their 250th anniversary this year, dated from when they were founded by Princess Augusta. Defra has given Kew capital money to carry out several projects, including £8.75m to maintain buildings and facilities on the Kew estate and £3m to build a new quarantine house in the gardens.

While Kew and its sister organisations seek sponsorship, they continue to do great work. Hopper says the most exciting development next year will be the Great Plant Hunt, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. The project will see every primary school in the country receive a Darwin Treasure Chest - a mini seed bank to teach children about the natural world. It is a timely project, as 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It can only be for everyone's benefit if Kew and the MSB receive the funding they need.

BREATHING PLANET

Kew's Breathing Planet programme has seven key actions:

- Driving discovery and global access to essential information

- Identifying highly threatened species and regions

- Helping global conservation programmes on the ground

- Safeguarding 25 per cent of species through the Millennium Seed Bank partnership

- Building a global network to restore damaged habitats

- Growing locally appropriate species for a changing world

- Using botanic gardens to inform and inspire.


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