Treborth Botanic Garden – saving a university botanic garden and making it count in education
Volume 6 Number 2 - July 2009
Nigel Brown and Sophie Williams
In May 2006 Bangor University announced the downscaling of its Botanic Garden at Treborth on the Menai Strait, North Wales after 45 years of service. The news prompted protest and concern from both the student body and the Friends of Treborth Botanic Garden. This article explains why this situation arose and how this special garden was rescued by a combination of youthful student support and concerted effort by local horticulturalists.
Treborth Botanic Garden was founded in 1960 by Professor Paul Richards, world authority on rainforests and Head of the Botany School at Bangor. This initiative was supported by the Director of RBG Kew at the time. Several glasshouses were relocated from the original botany gardens in the centre of Bangor and borders were created in six acres of unimproved, sheep-grazed pasture. The new Garden also included over 30 acres of mixed woodland and boasted a rocky shoreline. Half of the site was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a significant portion (the shoreline, woodland fringing the shore and a discrete area of ancient oak/ash woodland) was accepted as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
In the mid sixties the well respected plantsman, Len Beer, became Curator. Contributions to the collection from Len and other staff helped form a broad-based undergraduate teaching collection. The Garden became well known for its variety of Rosaceae, Ericaceae and Orchidaceae. Nigel Brown took over as Curator in 1976 and assumed a significant university teaching role.
Research activities at Treborth centred on Professor John Harper’s inspirational ecological studies of the Garden’s species-rich, semi-natural grassland. These studies were extended in the seventies to include earthworm ecology leading on to the construction of two innovative underground laboratories, known as rhizotrons.
The overall use of Treborth by students was encouraged by the conversion of the original potting shed to a teaching laboratory in the late seventies. This facility proved enormously popular and allowed greater use of the Garden for formal teaching and independent study. It also provided a resource for local schools, horticultural societies, wildlife conservation groups and art clubs. The growing number of interested members of public led to the formation of the Friends of Treborth Botanic Garden in 1997 and a rapid expansion of activities.
In 2004 the Friends initiated the twinning of Treborth Botanic Garden with Katse Botanic Garden of Lesotho. This was an extension of the Wales-Lesotho link and offered Treborth an opportunity to share and gain knowledge, skills and experience with a new Botanic Garden. The twinning provided an excellent educational opportunity for two ecology under-graduates who travelled to Lesotho to conduct research on the endemic spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla). The collection at Treborth now contains a variety of Lesotho and South African plants.
However, falling numbers of botany students and the natural loss of senior botanic academics in the eighties and nineties placed the future of Treborth Botanic Garden in increasing jeopardy. Plant biology was dropped as a degree subject at Bangor in 2005 due to the shortage of applicants nationwide, although botany modules continued to be offered as part of other degrees. Despite the Garden still being significantly involved in teaching, the decision to downscale Treborth was announced in May 2006.
Apart from questioning the academic need for a botanic garden the university was anxious to save itself the £17,000/yr (US$27,500) running costs (heating, lighting and water) and the staff costs (curator and one horticultural technician).It proposed to eliminate both staff posts and shut down the glasshouses and laboratory. A core teaching collection of plants would be retained and accommodated in another glasshouse 6 miles away. The outdoor grounds would be managed by the university’s Estates and Facilities Department as parkland with no further acquisition of specimens.
The horticultural technician (the only gardener employed at Treborth) was made redundant but the curator carried on. A liaison committee was established involving academic staff, Estates, students, and the Friends. It tried to establish service level agreements for basic operations such as mowing but increasingly the shortfall had to be made up by the curator and volunteers.
Student concern and action
When students discovered the planned changes for Treborth, a support rally for the Garden was organised. This was incredibly successful with over 250 people present and coverage by local and national press. The University could not ignore the overwhelming support from the students and local community, so appointed a recent graduate to research the options for a more sustainable future for Treborth. A business plan with ideas and opportunities for the Garden was formed, encompassing the current financial problems, potential external funding and ideas for self generated income.
From the business plan stemmed the fundraising musical event ‘Botanical Beats’. Supporters of Treborth, local musicians and artists all joined to provide a day of festivities, entirely powered by the Syrcas-Circus solar and wind system. The event is now a highlight of the student and Treborth calendar. Botanical Beats offers Treborth a chance to attract a wider audience to the Garden and enthuse non-botanists about the natural world. The June 2008 event was the most successful yet, attended by 600 people and raising £3500 (US$5,700).
There has always been student involvement at the Garden, with frequent work days, lectures and events organised by the Friends. This became more formalised when the Students for Treborth Action Group (STAG) was established in September 2006. The group was able to become an official student society, which then received support from the Students Union. The effect of this on the Garden has been massive. Students now organise regular volunteer days, picnics, fun days, academic talks, walks and further fundraising events. Work parties held by both students and the Friends have installed much needed glasshouse insulation. By 2008, income generated by the garden and its supporters more than matched expenditure on heating lighting and water, and a ride-on mower was purchased by the Friends.
The Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust supported a 12 month appointment of a horticultural scholar at Treborth in 2007 (and will be financing another scholar in 2009/10) while the Friends of Treborth have employed part-time student assistants. Volunteers still very actively undertake horticultural maintenance and development (e.g. facilitating woodland management) and event planning.
The volunteers recently established a collection of rare native montane species from Wales including Woodsia ilvensis. Treborth Botanic Garden fully embraces the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and has an ex-situ collection of 20 rare native plants including Cotoneaster cambricus, endemic to the Great Orme a few miles east. The Garden includes species-rich woodland and grassland which merit proactive, informed in-situ conservation. A dozen meadow plots of various size are mown at different frequencies to allow maximum flowering activity and species conservation. Rare native plant species benefiting from this include orchids (such as Ophrys apifera and Listera ovata), and the grassland fern, Ophioglossum vulgatum.
A significant area of woodland is threatened by alien Prunus laurocerasus and Rhododendron ponticum and much volunteer effort has been put into controlling this. Complementing the in-situ woodland conservation, the Friends of Treborth have established a teaching collection of native woodland species, arranged by National Vegetation Classification Community.
As well as regular student classes on plant evolution, identification and ecology the Garden has an important zoological role. Large second year classes sample invertebrates using pit-fall traps. Final year students carry out individual investigations of birds and moths and help maintain a database of nightly moth catches which spans over 20 years. There is a pigeon loft which accommodates a strong research group investigating bird flight physiology. Developing educational resources for schools and the public is also a theme for student projects and a Living Fossil Trail has proved particularly successful.
A novel practical module this year will involve second year undergraduates experiencing all aspects of work at Treborth, from routine activities such as watering, to seasonal propagation and planting – it is hoped that such experience will add significant value to biology and ecology degrees.
In September 2007 The Friends of Treborth secured a grant of £10,000 from the European Social Fund to establish a project involving the local community in exploring aspects of ‘Plants and People’ - in theory and in practice. This involved ten weeks of interactive sessions and field trips, with fourteen participants meeting twice weekly. This was the first time Treborth had received external funding to organise an adult course and it proved to be a great success, with requests for a repeat.
The Friends have recently facilitated a significant grant from the Better Woodlands for Wales Scheme to rid the Botanic Garden’s woodlands of invasive rhododendron and laurel. A new wildlife pond, funded mainly through the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) is under construction and will greatly increase suitability for schools’ visits. The first Plant Sale of 2009 raised £1,700 (US$2,800) and will help fund a part-time assistant for the Curator over the coming months. A Young Wildlife Explorers Club (4-11 year olds) got off to a flying start at Easter, introducing a new and enthusiastic age group to the Garden. June 7th 2009 sees ‘Botanical Beats 6’ in conjunction with a Wildlife Fun Day (as part of Biodiversity Week) – hopefully Treborth’s biggest event ever!
It is pleasing to acknowledge the unstinting support that Treborth has received in recent times from major botanic gardens and institutions such as Kew, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, BGCI, PlantNetwork, PlantLife International and CCW.
So despite the serious threat two years ago Treborth has not only survived but developed and now has an even stronger body of support. Its purpose is still educational but the breadth of that role is increasing both in terms of age groups catered for and skills and subject matter offered. The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation will continue to play a key role in determining the direction of Treborth Botanic Garden’s future. It is hoped that the Garden’s future will be shaped by the combined efforts of students, Friends and trained horticulturalists. Success will be measured by the Garden’s input into education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, its appeal and usage by the public and by its direct contribution to scientifically rigorous conservation projects.