Recently I found myself sitting cross-legged staring into my hedge.
I have particularly fine hedges. Good thing too as there are rather a lot of them: half a mile, to be exact.
They are ancient Somerset hedgerows and were old before I was even born. As is the way in these parts they’re built up on banks of churt flint and are mainly hazel: some are laid, but most are not, relying on the density of the species which grow in them to keep animals in and people out.
They are wildlife superhighways (as I know to my cost, having lost more just-sown broad bean seeds to the field mice in my hedgerows than I care to remember). You can tell how healthy your hedge is by counting the number of different species of plant in a three metre stretch, plus noting down evidence of animal activity (holes) and food (berries, nuts) as well as actual animals themselves (in my case, mainly snails, woodlice and centipedes).
My hedges got a silver award for structure (they’re getting a bit gappy here and there) and a gold for animal diversity and wildlife value. I felt quite proud.
In case you’re wondering what I’m on about, I was doing a biodiversity survey for OPAL (Open Air Laboratories), the citizen science project run by Imperial College London, the Natural History Museum, the Met Office, half a dozen other universities, and oh, loads of august institutions.
Its surveys have collected over 55,000 records of evidence collected by ordinary people like you and me, involving us in investigating the effects of everything from soil activity (worm-hunting) to water quality (ponds) and air quality (lichen – that was another one which had me peering at bits of my garden, this time the apple trees). There are now nearly 10 separate surveys, and anyone can join in: take a look and choose one you’d like to have a go at here.
They’re great fun, they get you looking at your garden in a whole different light, and what’s more you’re contributing to some really important research, feeding in to the great sea of knowledge from which ground-breaking insights occasionally pop up to influence governments, formulate solutions and generally change the way we think.
Citizen science is a fantastic way for scientists to gather huge quantities of information. The RSPB now has decades of detail about garden birds thanks to the Big Garden Birdwatch in January; the Big Butterfly Count in mid-summer is doing the same thing for butterflies; and the Ladybird Survey is keeping tabs on invasive alien harlequins via records of insects visiting people’s houses, sheds and gardens.
Isn’t it interesting that so many are garden-based? I’m sure it’s partly because that’s the outside space most of us have access to; but I suspect it’s also because gardeners are closet scientists by nature.
I don’t think of myself as much of a scientist; far too woolly of thought. But when it comes to plants and gardening I’ve taken science on board almost without realising it. I test my soil and know all about pH and geology; I can tell you the difference between xylem and phloem and wax lyrical on the ultra-violet patterns on foxglove flowers.
And I think that’s why I like doing OPAL surveys. I’ve become a scientist without noticing. Surprisingly, in the light of my almost overwhelmingly negative memories of science from school, it’s really interesting, too. Citizen science is taking off the lab coats, stripping out the inexplicable jargon and taking down the barriers dividing us into ‘artists’ or ‘scientists’. Turns out you don’t have to choose: it’s just about finding out about the world around you, after all. And it gives you a really good excuse to look at your garden for absolutely ages.